49ers Future Tied to Smith, Nolan
by Glenn Dickey
Oct 10, 2005

ALEX SMITH made his regular season debut at quarterback yesterday, and the 49ers future is tied to him and another rookie - head coach Mike Nolan.

Smith will remain at quarterback for the rest of the year. Nolan made that clear when he met with the media after the 28-3 loss to Indianapolis yesterday.

Nolan really has no choice. The team was going nowhere with Tim Rattay at quarterback. Perhaps Rattayís experience would have enabled the 49ers to win one or two more games than they will with Smith, but, so what? The 49ers would still be deep in the NFC West cellar. This way, theyíll get a chance to develop a young quarterback who could be the cornerstone for a much better team in the future.

Offensive coordinator Mike McCarthyís goal yesterday was to protect Smith. He tried to have maximum protection, with a tight end helping out tackles Anthony Clement and Kwame Harris, who need all the help they can get. He had Smith throwing primarily on dump off patterns to backs; six of Smithís nine completions went to backs, only one to a wide receiver, a 13-yard catch by Johnnie Morton. Only two passes were thrown to Brandon Lloyd, one of which was intercepted, and none to Arnaz Battle.

For his first game, that was a good strategy. Smith needed to have a game where he could settle in and start the difficult task of reading defenses and adjusting to the speed of the pro game without being totally demoralized.

As a first game strategy, it worked. Nolan noted after the game that one of the things he likes about Smith is his resiliency. He isnít discouraged by adversity, which is important, because thereís going to be plenty of that for the rest of the season.

THERE WERE some encouraging signs. The rookie quarterback showed composure, and I liked his confidence in rolling right on third-and-two and firing a seven-yard pass to Fred Beasley on the Indianapolis 25 midway through the third quarter. That should have given the 49ers a first down, but it was nullified by a penalty because the Niners had lined up without a receiver flanking Clement, a coaching error. On the next play, Smith threw an interception, and that, unfortunately, was the way his day went.

Smith had an abysmal statistical day, nine of 23 for just 74 yards, with four interceptions, but it was unrealistic to expect better. Except for the interceptions, his debut was comparable to Joe Montanaís in 1979, when Montana completed five of 12 passes for 36 yards in a 34-10 loss.

We canít expect a big turnaround in the 49er season. Itís usually bad teams that start rookie quarterbacks, and a young quarterback, no matter how talented, canít make them good. Peyton Manning, John Elway and Troy Aikman were a combined 7-30 as rookie starters; Manning started all 16 games for the Colts, who went 3-13.

What we can expect is improvement from Smith. Now that heís had his baptism, the 49ers need to give him more weapons. Let him throw downfield more to the wide receivers. Use Trent Smith, who wasnít even active for the Colts game, as a tight end who can catch balls downfield. Let Smith roll out more, because he seems to throw better on the move than from the pocket, just as Montana did early in his career. If Jonas Jennings canít come back from his injury after the bye week, Iíd like to see the Niners give rookie Adam Snyder a shot at starting, because Clement, though he was better Sunday than in the previous game, isnít the answer there. Snyder is a backup guard now, but he was All-Pac-10 as a tackle at Oregon last season.

Smith made the normal mistake of young quarterbacks by locking in on one receiver, which makes it very easy for a defense. The good ones learn to look off a receiver, the bad ones never do. Weíll get a better read on Smithís potential when we see how quickly he learns that lesson - if he does.

Itís a tough experience, but young quarterbacks have to learn by playing. Smith knows the games intellectually. He can look at game videos and recognize whatís happening with the defense, but he has to get enough game experience that he can recognize those defenses on the field. Heíll never learn that in a meeting room or on the sidelines.

FOR HIS PART, Nolan has to be more honest with the fans.

Nolan came into the job saying that his teamís goal would be to win the NFC West. Even last week, he was talking about just being one game back in a division that could be won with a 9-7 record. But the 49ers are not going to win nine games. They may not even win two.

I think the fans understand this. Late in the third quarter yesterday, they were cheering loudly for the team because of the spirited effort they were putting out. They didnít expect the 49ers to win that game against the much superior Colts, who are now 5-0, but they didnít want to see the kind of give-up game the 49ers played in Mexico City the previous Sunday.

The fans want a strong effort, and they want hope that the team will be better in the future. What the fans donít need is empty promises. After the 49ers were blown out in Philadelphia, gave away a possible win over the Cowboys and then were totally embarrassed against the Cardinals, even the most diehard fan realized there was no hope for this season.

Nolan has had a hard time with that. For all his talk about not being able to turn a 2-14 team around immediately, he seemed to feel in his heart that he could make a substantial difference. I thought myself that the effort I saw in training camp and the much improved coaching by assistants would result in a better record this year. But my public predictions, on TV and radio shows, were only for 4-5 wins this season. I believe Nolan looked for much more.

When reality started to sink in, after the Cowboys loss, he reacted poorly, with that rant about ďtrustĒ to the media. Two days later, he announced that Jamie Winborn would be traded. Somehow, word came out that Winborn had been out of position on several plays against the Cowboys. That kind of information usually comes from a coach who doesnít want to be directly quoted. Nobody in the media saw the video proof of that, of course, and linebackers coach Mike Singletary had praised Winborn for his play the previous week. Winborn has since been traded to Jacksonville for a seventh-round draft pick, and that deal was possible only because the 49ers agreed to pay part of Winbornís salary.

Yesterday, Nolan was much more subdued. He was late coming to the interview room and he spoke very briefly, answered a handful of questions and got out of the room quickly. He wasnít going to make another inflammatory statement that would be put in headlines.

BY MAKING Smith the first choice in the draft, Nolan tied his own future to him. Now, the 49ers future depends on the two rookies, the quarterback and the coach.

Smithís progress will depend on his ability to learn from his mistakes, and itís the same story with Nolan. I was impressed early by Nolanís organizational ability. Then, he got off track for a couple of weeks, but he has a chance to recover if he can take a long look in the mirror and recognize what heís done wrong.

It wonít be about winning this season for the 49ers, but if the rookie coach and rookie quarterback can find their way, the future will be much brighter.

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CORRECTION: In an answer to an e-mail in "Letters", I said Ken Meyer was one of two 49er head coaches in 1978. Actually, Meyer was the 1977 coach. Pete McCulley and Fred O'Connor shared in the 1978 disaster.

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