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Jeffri Chadiha
September 25, 2006
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September 25, 2006

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Under the guidance of quarterback guru Norv Turner, the 49ers' Alex Smith is playing like a top pick this season

San Francisco 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."

Despite Smith's 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."

While Smith 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.

It certainly 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.

After San 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 him."

Turner's 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 breakout season.

"Alex still 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."

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