Snyder, Dorsey Give 49ers Hope
by Glenn Dickey
Nov 21, 2005

FINALLY, A reason for optimism. Though the 49ers lost their eighth game of the season Sunday, there were two encouraging signs:

--The play of rookie offensive tackle Adam Snyder. I watched Snyder through my binoculars for a good part of the game, and he played very well, better than any 49er offensive tackle this season. Yes, I know, that’s damning with faint praise. Snyder held his own throughout, seldom needing the help that both Anthony Clement and Kwame Harris need on passing downs. On one run, he took out two men, blocking one to the inside and then blocking a linebacker on the outside, opening up a hole for Kevan Barlow.

Snyder should have been starting before this, of course. He was moved to guard in training camp because, with the uncertainty surrounding Jeremy Newberry, it was possible starting guard Eric Heitman would be shifted to center, so the 49ers needed backup at guard. Then, when free agent Jonas Jennings injured his shoulder, eventually going on the injured list for the season, the 49ers signed Clement, which was a bad move. That’s what a team does when it’s in playoff contention and needs to make a stopgap move. As everyone but Mike Nolan knew from the start, that has never described the Niners.

I suppose that Nolan felt, having signed Clement, he had to give him a chance to play, but that only compounded a bad decision. That first game against the Cardinals should have opened everyone’s eyes. There was a reason this guy was on the waiver wire.

At any rate, after the way Snyder played Sunday, I don’t think we’re going to be seeing much of Clement for the rest of the season. Because Snyder could handle his man, the 49ers were able to open up their offense, even throwing deep.

The man who was probably most relieved by that was offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy. As the 49ers bumbled their way through the offensive fog which extended to 15 quarters without a touchdown, McCarthy was often assailed by fans for his conservative playcalling. In fact, he had little choice. With the inadequate tackle play on both sides, he had to call formations which had tight ends blocking, not going out for passes, and he had to call for mostly runs and short passes, trying to keep his quarterbacks from getting killed.

2) The play of Ken Dorsey. The significance of Dorsey’s game was that it showed how valuable even limited experience is for a quarterback. The offense that the 49ers run, a version of the one Bill Walsh first brought to the team, calls for a quarterback to go through his “reads”, looking for a second and third receiver (even more with a veteran quarterback) if the first one is covered. Alex Smith and Cody Pickett never got beyond the first receiver; if he were covered, they’d take the ball down and run. Dorsey knows the offense well enough now that he can go to that second or third receiver, and that makes a tremendous difference.

DESPITE DORSEY’S play, the quarterback situation is still fluid. Dorsey further injured his ankle yesterday, though he gamely played through the injury and got the Niners in position to tie the game late in the fourth quarter. The reason Smith was inactive for the Seattle game was that his ankle wasn’t fully healed, so he couldn’t practice. The same may be true for Dorsey this week, which would probably knock him out of the starter’s role.

Smith is still No. 1 on the depth chart because, as I noted last week, money talks. The 49ers have already invested $24 million in him, so he will get a thorough opportunity to show that he’s worth it. That doesn’t mean just an occasional start.

It’s still far too early to judge Smith. In fact, Dorsey’s play yesterday brought that into focus. The difference between the way Dorsey played yesterday and the way he played last season was immense. It was also a big improvement on his first start this season. For the first time yesterday, he had confidence in what he was doing and took control of the game. He could only do that because he’s learned the offense and played enough now to understand the speed of the game, compared to college ball.

Smith is nowhere near that now, but he will only get there by playing. He’s an avid student of the game, looking at videos over and over, but intellectual knowledge of the system isn’t enough. He has to be able to do it physically. Even practice isn’t enough, because a quarterback doesn’t get hit in practice. (The term “redshirt” to designate a college player held out of competition for a year derived originally from the practice of coaches putting red uniform shirts on their quarterbacks in practice, to signal to defensive players that the quarterbacks are protected.)

The best quarterbacks know how to deal with the pass rush, when to ignore it and step up to deliver the pass, when to get away from a collapsing pocket and scramble to make a throw. Inexperienced quarterbacks, by contrast, often panic and desert the pocket early; it isn’t cowardice but an inability to realize they can still get a pass off..

Smith talked to Peyton Manning after the draft to get Manning’s view on what he had to do to become an NFL-calibre quarterback. Manning, who started from game one of his pro career, told Smith privately what he’s since said publicly: Play, play, play. Even though he’d played four years in a pro offense at Tennessee, at the highest level of college ball, and even though his father, Archie, was a very good pro quarterback, Manning still went through a learning process as a rookie. His younger brother, Eli, was a part-time starter as a rookie with the New York Giants last season; he’s much better this season, but he still makes mistakes he probably won’t in another couple of years.

Smith started behind both of the Manning brothers because he played only two years at Utah, in less demanding competition, and played in a spread offense, much different than the pro offensive sets. His learning curve has been steep.

DESPITE THE improvement they showed yesterday, the 49ers still have a long way to go. Sunday’s game will be another measure of their progress. The Niners have usually played well at home; their only two wins have come at Candlestick, and they’ve come close to wins against the Cowboys and Seahawks. Meanwhile, they’ve played poorly on the road, especially in that 52-17 disaster against the Redskins, which is typical of bad teams. They’re on the road again Sunday but playing the Titans, who also have won only two games. If the 49ers win, it will be a significant step.

Mostly, though, this season has always been about building a foundation for future success. A strong offensive line is a must, and Snyder seems to be a significant upgrade at a vital position. The quarterback position is the most important one. Dorsey showed yesterday that he can be a good quarterback, but he has physical limitations which will probably hold him back. Smith has much more potential, and his development – or lack of – will still be the decisive factor in deciding the 49ers future.

NOTE: In a column last week in the Daily Cal, I had a mistaken reference to Lars Ahlstrom, publisher of The Bootleg, the definitive word on Stanford sports. Lars, a Stanford graduate, has in-laws who are Cal alumni. His father-in-law is Everett McKeen, a former Cal basketball player and younger brother of the more famous Bob McKeen.

E-MAILS: When answering e-mails, I sometimes get a message that my e-mail is blocked and I have to fill out a form to have it delivered. I’m sorry, but I don’t do that. If you have that kind of system, you’ll never hear from me.

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