guidance of quarterback guru Norv Turner, the 49ers' Alex Smith is playing like
a top pick this season
offensive coordinator Norv Turner knew what was coming as he strolled by
quarterback Alex Smith in the team's crowded locker room following Sunday's
20--13 win over St. Louis. Smith pulled Turner aside, leaned close and said the
game could've been a rout if he hadn't misfired on three passes with big-play
potential. Turner grinned, patted Smith on the shoulder and encouraged him to
enjoy the win--and his clear signs of improvement--before telling an observer,
"That's Alex. He's always tough on himself."
self-criticism, the 2005 No. 1 overall pick now bears little resemblance to the
flustered rookie who threw just one touchdown pass and had 11 interceptions.
"I already feel like my rookie year was a long time ago," Smith says.
"This reminds me of the experience I had in college [at Utah]. I had a
rough freshman year, then kept working hard and started turning the corner as a
sophomore. I can feel myself turning the corner again."
didn't dominate against the Rams, he looked poised, managed the game well, and
unlike last season, when he was sacked 29 times in nine games, had no problem
evading the rush, rolling out occasionally to fire crisp passes to receivers
near the sidelines. He also didn't throw an interception or fumble against a
Rams defense that forced five turnovers last week.
helps that Smith has better talent around him this year. From second-year
running back Frank Gore (29 carries, 127 yards, one touchdown), newly elevated
to starter, to free agent wideout Antonio Bryant (four receptions, 131 yards,
one score) and rookie tight end Vernon Davis, the sixth overall pick in this
year's draft, the 49ers have given Smith more playmakers. They've also given
him a coordinator who knows how to use all that talent.
Francisco hired Turner last January, he met with Smith and explained his
strategy for turning him into a good NFL quarterback. He assured Smith that the
offensive system would be molded to fit his talents--mobility and accuracy--but
Turner emphasized the need for Smith to speed his game up. Smith estimates that
he practiced thousands of drop-backs in the off-season, learning to get set in
the pocket faster and read the defense more quickly. "Alex had to learn to
not be so deliberate," says Turner, who helped groom Troy Aikman into a
Hall of Famer at Dallas. "He needed to speed up his decision making and his
release. Once he started doing that, the game started slowing down for
quarterback-friendly offense also has boosted Smith's comfort level. The coach
believes in spreading the ball around, establishing a strong running game and
using constant motion to confuse defenses. The effects on Smith were immediate.
In the opener, a 34--27 loss at Arizona, he completed 23 of 40 passes for 288
yards and one touchdown, and against the Rams he was 11 of 22 for 233 yards,
including a rifle shot to Bryant that ended in a 72-yard touchdown, the longest
of Smith's NFL career. "The beauty of this offense is that it generates a
lot of big plays," says 49ers backup quarterback Trent Dilfer, "and
when you're a young quarterback, you need those big plays to build your
confidence. It's too hard to [consistently] drive the ball against defenses
when you're at [ Smith's] stage."
Smith has already
matured to the point that he knows the mistakes he made in a game before he
sees them on film on Monday. In the locker room after Sunday's win, he sought
out Bryant to apologize for overthrowing him on a crossing route midway through
the second quarter that could have led to a touchdown. "I told him he
could've had a 200-yard [receiving] day if I had put that ball where it was
supposed to be. I need to make that play next time." It's little moments
like those that have the 49ers feeling that Smith could be on the verge of a
has a long way to go with his confidence," says Mike Nolan, San Francisco's
second-year coach. "I want to see him get to the point where he's arrogant
out there. But I also realize that his job is not to get there today. His job
is to make our plays work. So far he's been doing that."