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What will happen with Vince Young taken as the first quarterback in the 2006 NFL draft? It will be hard to say due to his many similarities with 2005 NFL draft pick Alex Smith. Fans are all still waiting to see if Alex Smith will be the next Joe Montana for the San Francisco 49ers.
Not since the Jeff Garcia years have the 49ers seen or heard of the playoffs. They also haven’t seen their star quarterback register such impressive numbers as to warrant a trip to the coveted NFL Pro Bowl. It has been a long time and it might end up being even longer if Alex Smith doesn’t prove to be the leading cast member on this team in 2006.
I must say finally we have a team assembled under head coach Mike Nolan that will allow him a fighting chance. The cancer that had spread under the old regime with Terry Donahue and Dennis Erickson are now a non-factor. Now we have one of the best coaching staffs in the league, especially with new offensive coordinator Norv Turner on board. He has a pedigree for enhancing a quarterback’s attributes and is meticulous about everything the offense is doing under his leadership.
“The guy is solid,” said offensive coordinator Norv Turner about Smith. “I don’t worry about him at all.”
These are pretty big words coming from a first time coordinator with the San Francisco 49ers, but not for a veteran of the game itself. Think back to Alex Smith’s performance last season, and you remember a quarterback that was even unable to hold a football on more than one occasion. In fact, he had such difficulty maintaining his grip on footballs that it contributed to lopsided defeats by the Washington Redskins and Seattle Seahawks while out on the road.
NFL team owners recently passed a rule where traveling teams will be permitted to have a dozen of their own balls, and are permitted to put them in play when their offense takes the field. Previously, all of the footballs used in a game were supplied by the home team and, naturally, were tailored to the home quarterback’s liking. Some home quarterbacks preferred the ball nice and slick, which would force the visiting quarterback to try and adjust. Alex Smith had massive problems with holding on to the football in these two televised games, which proved to be absolutely frustrating to say the least. It cast a large black shadow on him as being the right man for this team.
Norv Turner has nothing but positive things to say about Alex Smith, and is confident that with a new offensive line in front of him, and the array of new weapons assembled around him, he will be successful in more ways than one.
Turner has been working diligently with Smith since mid-March, and can see the constant development taking place in this young quarterback from the University of Utah. Turner has noted the screwed up plays of last season and can see no duplication of Alex not holding on to the football this coming season.
Looking back, the 49ers won as many football games in the last three seasons as the Seattle Seahawks did last year. The San Francisco 49ers record of 13-35 wasn’t just the worst inside the conference; it was tied with Oakland for the worst anywhere. But not all of it was due to Alex Smith. Remember, Tim Rattay was the starting quarterback last season. He didn’t last very long before Alex Smith was anointed as the starting quarterback where for seven games (he played in nine total).
We all want to think that Alex Smith just had a rough rookie outing, which is typical among rookie quarterbacks as they adjust to the speed and hype of the NFL after being in college for four years. But Alex wasn’t just having a rough rookie season; he was absolutely horrendous. He had 11 interceptions, 11 fumbles and only one touchdown. But on a high note, he finished the 2005 NFL season with two consecutive victories and, even better, looking (in the season finale defeat of the Houston Texans) like the bright young man we all adored as he stood by the podium at the 2005 NFL draft party.
But even Norv Turner, with all his experience and wisdom of quarterbacks (most notably NFL superstar Troy Aikman), knew that Alex Smith in 2005 really stunk. He wouldn’t be in Santa Clara working so hard with him if he hadn’t noticed that.
“I agree with you,” said Turner, who has studied the videotape. “It’s as if he was just playing and wasn’t trying to be perfect. I saw enough of him in these last three days to know he’s going to be a really good player.”
But Turner looks beyond the obvious of what happened back in 2005. He breaks the quarterback down and highlights the strengths and weaknesses of the man he’ll be in charge of cultivating into a lethal weapon for the San Francisco 49ers. He can see Smith’s vision, his poise and his intelligence. He has also talked multiple times about his ability to flush the pocket and make decisions while on the run. He also can see how incredibly accurate Alex can be behind a line that is completely made over with new elements of strength.
Of course being in San Francisco, home of five Super Bowl victories, and living in that limelight day in and day out will be huge determining pressures to which Alex will have to grow accustomed. 49er fans haven’t seen anything remotely close to a championship since Steve Mariucci and Jeff Garcia left. The glory years under Joe Montana and Steve Young remain an enigma in the Bay Area. Tourists in droves come to the fair city by the Bay and pass by Candlestick Park (now Monster Park) and stare in awe at what was that happened inside that stadium so many years ago. I know I was one of who did that a few years ago. The field is almost sacred with the events that transpired there in the analogs of professional football.
The West Coast offense is being diminished in San Francisco for the first time almost since the Dick Nolan era. Mike Nolan has assembled an offensive staff headed by Turner to apply whatever is necessary to simplify the offense for Alex Smith.
“We’re going to have fun with it,” Turner said. “What he does as well as any young quarterback I’ve been around is throw the deep ball with accuracy. It carries and doesn’t die on him. He’s not going to be in a position where people sit on him.”
Again, think back to 2005 and you will remember that Alex Smith had no support. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist long to figure out that he was playing behind a makeshift offensive line full of rookies struggling to make a name for themselves. He also did not have any kind of reliable receivers to throw to. The running game was anemic because of injuries to starter Kevan Barlow and an offensive line unwilling and incapable of blocking without a penalty flying our way. It was a cast of misfits in every sense of the word. Coach Nolan can honestly attest to it and recognize that Alex Smith was not provided the ideal atmosphere to try and flourish in.
Both Alex Smith and newly acquired wide receiver Antonio Bryant have begun to mesh with a chemistry that 49er fans have missed. Both have been practicing together and have begun a trust that is distributed with each football Alex throws his way.
“We’ve hung out, and we’ve done some things,” Bryant said of the rapport he’s building with Smith. "Just out here on the field it’s gotten better every week as far as running the routes and understanding where the quarterback wants you to be. I’m just showing him my capabilities as someone who can go out there and make plays for him.”
Norv Turner’s offensive system is less complicated than Mike McCarthy’s West Coast playbook from last year. Turner’s offense has allowed Smith to meld his skills into the scheme. On most of his plays, Smith doesn’t have as many progressions, and he has an opportunity to narrow his options based upon defensive match-ups. Even though McCarthy has gone to Green Bay to be their new head coach, his principles and the foundation of the West Coast offense has built a foundation from which Alex has been able to learn and reap benefits.
“It was such a great foundation with the drops and the fundamentals,” Smith said one month. “That was stuff I really needed.”
Turner’s system emphasizes speed. He set the bar high for Smith to avoid the on rushing menaces of a defensive end. He wants Alex to make quick and accurate decisions while he is in the line of fire, and he can only do that if he is able to look at pressure straight in the eye.
“You can avoid a lot of sacks by getting rid of the ball quick,” said Smith, who was sacked 29 times in eight games last season.
You have to stop the sacks on Alex Smith if we are to have any chance to get our offense down the field. This is where a new offensive line will come in with veterans Jonas Jennings, Larry Allen and Jeremy Newberry. We have to maximize the protection schemes for him if he is to be successful in this business.
The San Francisco 49ers have delivered even more insurance to the mentoring of Alex Smith with the acquisition of 12-year veteran Trent Dilfer for a seventh round draft pick next year and Ken Dorsey. Dilfer made the Pro Bowl while with Tampa Bay, and led the Baltimore Ravens to a Super Bowl title after the 2000 season. Recently, he had a hand in the development of Matt Hasselback in Seattle and Charlie Frye in Cleveland.
Mike Nolan hit the nail on the head by surrounding Alex with the energy and personnel capable of providing him the positive influence he needs to become more successful. Landing a veteran teacher like Trent Dilfer further implicates that. This franchise is serious about becoming a competitor in this league and acquiring a veteran like Trent sends a signal to all that everything is being invested in making Alex a success one way or another.
Trent Dilfer is now coming off a patellar-tendon injury in his knee that required surgery. The 49ers are hopeful that he’ll be at 100% capacity throughout training camp and will be a viable option in case anything serious happens to Alex Smith.
“I always dreamed of being a 49er,” Dilfer said. “This is a dream come true for me as a Bay Area guy.”
Dilfer has served as a back-up veteran quarterback for a variety of NFL franchises; he understands what his role is once he’s in the mix of the game. He has proven to be a valuable mentor and someone that can lend stability to a team should an unfortunate injury crop its ugly head.
“The approach I take is whether I’m the starter or backup is to do whatever it takes to help the team win football games,” Dilfer said. “I’ll perform to the best of my ability, work my tail off and by doing that, I’ll be a mentor to Alex Smith as a quarterback.”
For a significant amount of time both Mike Nolan and personnel chief Scot McCloughan held private discussions on what to do should Alex Smith sustain a significant injury. It is everyone’s fear, both from a coaches and fans standpoint, to witness a devastating injury to any player, especially a quarterback that has so much bearing on the progress of your offense.
Thinking back to such a case was when Steve Young sustained his career-ending concussion that blazed the path for CFL star quarterback Jeff Garcia. Always preparing for the worst in any case scenario has to be a part of the planning process that both management and ownership needs to consider on an annual basis.
“I’d like to think if something happens to Alex that he can perform, and perform at a high level,” Nolan said.
But the one person that had a great bearing on the Dilfer equation was 49er Scot McCloughan, who knew Trent Dilfer from his days back with the Seattle Seahawks. He came away impressed by what Trent Dilfer offered Hasselback and how he remained selfless at the same time, understanding exactly what his purpose was on the team. That is what really sealed the deal in acquiring Trent Dilfer based upon what benefits he could bring to Alex Smith’s ever evolving learning curve.
“He’s been through a lot, he’s been through big-time success and big-time failure. You can’t teach that. It gives another sounding board for people to talk to.”
Dilfer had this to add about Alex Smith: “He’s such a great kid, smart, a guy that’s going to be able to digest information you give him and learn quickly from his mistakes and a guy that has some natural leadership skills.”
The 49ers also signed five-year veteran quarterback Shaun Hill from the Minnesota Vikings this off-season. This move was a peculiar one in that it forces the #3 49er quarterback Cody Pickett to fall back on the other athletic skills he has demonstrated to the 49ers in receiving and returning the ball.
Veteran quarterbacks Dilfer, Jesse Palmer and now Shaun Hill have crowded the position so much, Coach Nolan is seriously looking at Cody Pickett as a wide receiver or special teams standout. Luckily, he has been willing to learn new positions.
“You can’t worry about that stuff,” Pickett said. 'Competition brings out the best in everybody. If they want me to play quarterback, I’ll play quarterback. If they want me to play special teams, I’ll play that. If it’s receiver, if it’s left tackle, whatever it is, I’m going to try to compete and do my best at it.”
The cards have been stacked high at the quarterback position. I don’t see the 49ers carrying more than three quarterbacks into the 2006 NFL regular season although it has been done before. Mike Nolan is looking at the best possible foundation to support the constant development of his star investment, Alex Smith. In order to do that, he has surrounded him with veteran quarterbacks and provided him one of the best tutors in the world (Norv Turner) who will devise the offense to his particular strengths.
Doubting Alex Smith is easy to do based upon his spotty performances in his rookie season. But now the stakes are for real and this will be his swan season to mature and prove he is a legitimate quarterback inside this league. I believe that Mike Nolan and Scot McCloughan have provided the right recipe for success to the best of their abilities and evaluations. Alex Smith now must prove to the Bay Area and to himself that he was worth being picked No.1 overall and still is a promising quarterback for the future for this franchise.