Alex Smith's First 49er Grade: Incomplete
by Glenn Dickey
May 06, 2005

TIM RATTAY is the nominal starting quarterback, Cody Pickett looked the best in today’s mini-camp at Santa Clara, but top draft pick Alex Smith is the quarterback who coach Mike Nolan hopes will emerge, which shows how muddled the 49ers quarterback situation is.

Smith was the center of attention, naturally, with more television cameras at the mini-camp than were there at any practice last fall. Nolan didn’t think that bothered the rookie. “If he was nervous, it didn’t show,” Nolan said. Smith said he didn’t even think about the extra media attention. “Once practice started, it was just like a game,” he said. “That’s all you think of.”

So, how did he look? Like a rookie quarterback. The only time I’ve been blown away the first time I saw a young quarterback, college or pro, was John Elway’s first practice as a Stanford freshman. Smith isn’t Elway, but nobody else is, either.

Smith threw some good passes and some awful passes. He obviously had a communications problem a couple of times, with passes thrown nowhere near a receiver. Most of his passes were just enough off target that receivers had to reach for them. Even one cited by Nolan, a long completion to Brandon Lloyd, was a little short of his target, but Lloyd made a nice comeback to grab it.

Nolan made a good point, though, when he said, “He doesn’t know his receivers yet. He doesn’t know how fast they can run, so he’s not sure exactly where to throw the ball.”

All the quarterbacks have much to learn this year, because the system will be quite different, a return to a version of the Bill Walsh offense. Rattay has a little edge because he played under a similar system with Steve Mariucci as a rookie, but there are still different numbering systems and names for plays.

For Smith, there is the added challenge of moving from the spread style of offense, where he took a direct snap from center each time, to the pro-T, which starts with the quarterback under center. As if to underscore that problem, Smith fumbled on his first play, after backing away from center.

But, despite that first misadventure, Nolan thought Smith looked comfortable under center. “I thought he took command in the huddle,” he said. “I know the players are checking him out. It’s like they’ll say to themselves, ‘Well, he did that one thing OK. Let’s see what happens at the line of scrimmage.’”

Smith will also have to resist the impulse to run immediately when he can’t find a receiver – a problem that plagued Steve Young when he first came to the 49ers.

In this era of blitzing defenses, teams need a mobile quarterback who can evade the pass rush but a quarterback who runs at every opportunity is not the answer. Young said later in his career that he had learned it was better to throw a pass for eight yards than to run for the same distance because the pass was a cooperative effort, not an individual accomplishment.

NOLAN SAID today that he would prefer having one starting quarterback than two alternating ones. “If you have two starting quarterbacks, what you really have is two backups,” he said.

He admitted he was concentrating on how the quarterbacks looked, with Rattay and “The rook” getting most of the snaps. He insisted that Ken Dorsey and Pickett were still in the mix. “We saw a lot of them at our quarterbacks camp earlier,” he said. “Tim wasn’t ready to play just yet at that time and we hadn’t drafted Alex yet.”

Realistically, though, it’s a battle between Rattay and Smith. Dorsey got quite a bit of playing time last season, which only exposed his weaknesses, primarily that when he can’t step into his throws against a hard pass rush, his passes just float on him. Pickett is impressive physically but he had problems picking up the system last season and he’s apparently having the same problems with the new system. “Cody is a little behind the other three,” Nolan said.

So, that leaves the incumbent, Rattay, and the challenger, Smith. Since Nolan made no effort to even talk to Rattay until a couple of weeks ago, I think we can safely assume that he has the same opinion of Rattay that I have: He should be a career backup. He’s valuable as a quarterback who can come off the bench and give you a good quarter or a good game if your starter gets hurt, but the team is in trouble if he’s the starter. And, as we saw last year, he has problems staying healthy.

But Nolan’s decision will be based on how fast Smith can pick up the system. “If he only learns one part of it,” he said, “we’ll have to make sure that’s what we use when he’s in there.”

The situation is eerily similar to what happened with Joe Montana in his rookie year. Montana came to a 2-14 team in his rookie year, as has Smith. Steve DeBerg, the 49ers starter in 1979, was a strong-armed quarterback who couldn’t move, so under the fourth quarter pass rush, he often threw a costly interception. Rattay is slightly more mobile than DeBerg, but he, too, has a tendency to throw that costly fourth-quarter interception.

When Montana was a rookie, Walsh used him only in specific circumstances, usually inside the other team’s 20, and limited him to rollout passes, so he could run if he didn’t find a receiver immediately. It wasn’t until midway through Montana’s second season that he became a starter.

Nolan certainly hopes it won’t be that long with Smith, but he may have no choice.

A QUICK, non-quarterback, note:

The most encouraging aspect of the practice was the intensity of the players.

“There’s a whole different attitude,” Dorsey said. “Maybe it’s because he (Nolan) is a defensive coach, but on offense, we’re playing almost like we were on defense, just throwing our bodies around. Then, when we come off the field, we can talk about what we did, but it’s more fun this way.”

Nolan agreed that the practice was high-spirited, but he had a cautionary note: “This is what you expect with a coaching change and new people here,” he said. “We saw the same thing in our first camp. But the important thing is that we continue this attitude into the season.”

Earlier in the day, it was rumored that Jerry Rice would be signed by the 49ers but Nolan said that wasn't in their plans. "That's not the direction we're going," he said. The only way the Niners will sign Rice is to do it for one day in training camp so he can retire as a 49er, as Roger Craig did.

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