Turner Likes Alex Smith
“People ask me all the time if I think Alex can be a decent quarterback,” said new 49ers offensive coordinator Norv Turner. “I tell them, I think he can be much better than that. I think he can be very good.
“There’s no question about his physical skills. We’ve been working out here since mid-March in informal drills, and both in those and in our mini-camp, he’s made all the throws, short, medium, long. There’s no doubt in my mind that he can throw the deep ball. People think all it takes is a strong arm, but you have to be accurate, too, and Alex is very accurate. There’s a reason he was taken No. 1.”
Turner and I were talking at the 49ers headquarters, and he had the manner of a man just taken off Death Row. One of the nicest men I’ve ever met in sports, Norv has worked for Dan Snyder and Al Davis, a fate I wouldn’t wish on Bill Parcells.
He knows he’s got a lot of work to do with Smith, who had a very rocky introduction to the NFL last year. “It’s a matter of working with him over and over, so he’s as comfortable in a game when the pass rush comes as he is in practice.”
Turner thinks fans and media expect too much of a quarterback to be at this best all the time. He tells his quarterbacks not to expect perfection, and he’s advised Smith to practice damage control. “When a play starts to break down, it’s OK to throw an incomplete pass,” he told Smith. “Don’t make it worse by throwing an interception or fumbling the ball away.”
To help Smith, Turner is going to use the quarterback’s athleticism by moving him out of the pocket. “We aren’t going to be a bootleg team, but there will be times when we run a bootleg,” he said. “Alex has the ability to move outside and throw well on the run, as he did from the Shotgun in college.
“People forget, but that’s a lot like the way Joe Montana was used at the start of his career. I know, because I was with the Rams (as an offensive assistant, 1985-90) so we saw him twice a year. Troy (Aikman) did that, too, early in his career.”
Turner said he expects to get a boost not just from Smith’s running but from the threat of it. “We’ll roll him out to both sides, so the defense won’t be able to plan for just one side of the field. The blitz up the middle won’t work so well if Alex is rolling out, and pass rushers can’t come at him all out if they know he may roll out.”
A SMART coach adapts his system to his players, and that’s what Turner plans to do with the 49ers, using the versatility of the offensive players to advantage.
The 49ers have two receivers, Arnaz Battle and Rasheed Marshall, who are former quarterbacks, along with rookie Michael Robinson, who is being tried at running back. “The thing about quarterbacks is that they’re smart, so when they switch positions, they pick up things pretty fast,” Turner noted.
The reigning Super Bowl champs, the Pittsburgh Steelers, showed what could be done with versatile players, as Antwaan Randle El, a former quarterback, was used to throw an occasional pass off a reverse. I’d be surprised if that play isn’t in the 49ers playbook this season, although Turner cautions that “With all the videos that are available these days, it’s harder to trick people. Execution is more important than ever.”
The reverse itself could be an important part of the 49er playbook this year, too. “You have to have the right kind of players for it,” Turner said. “When I was with the Redskins (as head coach), we had two guys who were great on the reverse, Michael Westbrook and Leslie Shepherd, so we ran it a lot. We wanted to get the ball into Michael’s hands especially, and the first time we ran it, he went 75 yards for a touchdown.
Turner doesn't expect that result every time, of course. “People think you have to get a big gain every time out of the reverse, but if you just get 10-12 yards, that’s a good play. And the threat of it helps, too, because if a linebacker is giving backside support, he can’t go after a play to the other side if he knows it could be a reverse.”
Turner also likes the versatility of rookie tight end Vernon Davis. “With his speed, there are just a lot of ways he can be used. We could flank him out and have him go deep, we could play him at tight end and send him down the middle. If he's working against a safety, he's going to be very effective. With a receiver who has that kind of speed, you can throw him a short pass and he can find a seam and turn it into a long gainer.”
When I covered the Raiders in 1967, they used tight end Billy Cannon, a converted running back, as their deep threat; Cannon caught 10 touchdown passes. Fred Biletnikoff was a great possession receiver but never a burner and Bill Miller, the split end, was not, either.
The 49ers could have a similar look this year because Davis is faster than any of their wide receivers. Turner likes free agent receiver Antonio Bryant but envisions him more as a receiver who makes tough catches over the middle than one who streaks down the sidelines.
A STAPLE OF Turner’s offense is a strong running game, and he thinks he’ll have that this year with Kevan Barlow, Frank Gore and Maurice Hicks, with Robinson as the wild card.
It all starts up front. “This was a different team at the end than it had been at the start of last season,” he said, “because the offensive line got so much better with the rookies (Adam Snyder and David Baas) in there. It’s easier for young linemen to learn to run block than pass block, and they picked it up in a hurry. We should have Jonas Jennings back. If we were going into training camp, he’d be in there now, but Mike Nolan decided to play it safe and hold him out until the June camp. Picking up Larry Allen was a big move. The guys who played against him last year said he’s still as good a run blocker as there is in the league.”
All this will help Smith, too, because it will take the pressure off him. It’s easy to be optimistic at this time of year, but it does appear the 49ers are on the right road. Having Norv Turner as the offensive coordinator is a big part of that. Whether or not you share his optimism about Alex Smith, he’s clearly the one who could make it happen.
E-MAILS: This has been a busy week, professionally and personally, and the weekend will also be busy. I probably won’t be answering many e-mails personally, but I will try to update “Letters,” probably tomorrow.
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