Smith Impressive, But Nolan Still Struggling
by Glenn Dickey
Dec 05, 2005

ALEX SMITH had moments of brilliance. Mike Nolan and his coaching staff did not. So, the reviews from yesterdayís frustrating loss to the Arizona Cardinals are mixed for the 49ers.

First, the positive: In the first half, Smith showed the benefit of both the off-field study heís done of the game and his previous experience in 49er games, with much more awareness of where he was and where the rush was.

That was especially evident on the 49ers one touchdown drive, just before the half. Smith hit Johnnie Morton on consecutive 24-yard passes, but the most impressive play was the one which set up the touchdown.

Smith was flushed from the pocket and started to run, but he kept looking downfield. He seemed to be over the line of scrimmage but took a step back just before he hummed a beauty downfield to Frank Gore, who caught it and went out of bounds at the Arizona 2.

Though heíd started the game throwing accurately, those three passes were really the first indication that, with time, Smith can be a good NFL quarterback. He was reading the defense, throwing hard and accurately. Thatís the Smith that I had seen earlier in practice but who had not been evident in the games.

It takes more time for a quarterback to develop than players at other positions because thereís so much more to learn. Another player only has to learn his responsibilities. The quarterback has to be aware of what every player is doing on the offense Ė and what every defensive player is doing as well.

When a quarterback isnít certain what heís doing, he can look very bad, as Smith had earlier, because his mechanics are all screwed up. Heíll wind up throwing off balance or off his back foot, or heíll zero in on one receiver and never look a defender off. Often, if his first receiver isnít open, heíll take the ball down and run. Thatís an accurate description of what Smith had done earlier.

It all starts with physical ability. Ken Dorsey will never be much more than what he is now because he just doesnít have the physical ability to be better. Smith has that ability.

But, physical ability isnít enough if the quarterback doesnít make good decisions. That comes only with playing. Though a quarterback can learn what he should do from the sessions with video and coaches, that's intellectual knowledge, not physical. itís only when he plays that he learns how to react to the speed of the game, how to gain that sense of being aware of the pressure but still finding a way to get his pass off.

With his ability, the question always has been how fast Smith could learn what he needs to get it done. Heís still got a long way to go, but for the first time, there were signs that heís starting to get it.

UNFORTUNATELY, HE didnít get much help from the coaching staff. The Cardinals made some defensive adjustments at halftime which rendered Smith ineffective in the second half. As usual, the 49ers made none, leaving Smith on his own.

Iíve been impressed by the 49ers coaches in practice. Theyíre on top of things there, stopping play to work on specific techniques, for instance, when players donít do it right. But they donít seem to carry that expertise to the games, which is puzzling. Perhaps they think they canít make in-game adjustments with such a young team, but I wish theyíd try.

Nolan contributed his own gaffe late in the game when he called a timeout to rally his defense and then challenged the officialsí call on a Frank Gore fumble which had given the ball to the Cardinals. When he lost the challenge, heíd used up the 49ersí last two timeouts, so they had no way of stopping the clock when Arizona had the ball in the final two minutes.

At the time, Nolan had asked the officials whether it would hurt his team if he made that challenge, and he reported later that they had told him it wouldnít. But the instant replay rule is very clear: If a coach challenges a call and loses, his team loses a timeout. Nolan is a rookie head coach but this is his 19th season in the NFL. He should have known that rule.

Nolan is clearly still feeling his way as a head coach.

He started something last week which I think is a very good thing, having players watch films without coaches and do a self-evaluation, which should develop more responsibility for their actions among the players.

But heís been very slow to admit to himself that this season is less about winning than finding out which players can be part of the foundation for future success.

He had to be figuratively hit over the head to get Anthony Clement out of the offensive line and rookie Adam Snyder in. Yesterday, another draft choice, David Baas, made his first start at guard. Though Baasís self-evaluation was harsh, he seemed to play well.

Snyder has been a big improvement. Next year, he and Jonas Jennings, who has had season-ending surgery on his shoulder, should be the starting tackles, and Kwame Harris should be released. Baas and Justin Smiley should be the starting guards. Hopefully, Jeremy Newberry will retire, before he winds up in a wheelchair for the rest of his life, and Eric Heitman will be the center. The offense always stalls without a good offensive line; this group seems to have real potential.

ONLY THE most optimistic of the 49er Faithful could ever have hoped for more than 4-5 wins this season. Now, itís almost certain they wonít even reach that level. The next three games will be on the road, where they havenít won in regulation time in three seasons. They might win their final game, at home against the Houston Texans, but since the loser of that game might get the No. 1 pick in the draft, 49er fans may not know which way to root.

Realistically, the development of a quarterback who can carry them forward and of a coach who can take command were the most important goals for this season. After Sundayís game, Iím optimistic that Smith will be the quarterback the Niners need. Nolan? Iím still reserving judgment.

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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