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San Francisco 49er fans, at Monster Park and all throughout the nation, lifted their voices and arms in the air at the sight of quarterback Alex Smith, the bright and charismatic young man from the University of Utah, delivering consecutive completions in our first preseason game of 2006 against the Chicago Bears. Considering all the darkness and gloom over the past several seasons, even with the dawning of a new era under head coach Mike Nolan, the 49er faithful almost didn’t know how to react to the unpredictable success of this first preseason test.
Never have I witnessed Alex Smith look more clam and collected as on this day. It was almost like 2005 had never existed, and that the wonder kid from Utah was the chosen saint of our redemption after all. Every sports analyst and professional football critic from ESPN to NFL network sat up and took notice of the seldom talked about Alex Smith after this game. It makes me sick to watch so many NFL broadcasts that never focus on the 49ers. After being a non-contender for so long, our name has been used in the vocabulary of the sport less and less as our record indicates nothing of substance or newness season after season.
Now we have something we can actually chew on as we collectively wave the old crimson red and gold banners and sound the war cries of a new season. Alex Smith directed the 49er offense in roll out fashion to the tune of 16 completions out of 21 pass attempts for 137 total yards and a 92.8 quarterback rating. There were no fumbles and no interceptions, and all kinds of time to locate and throw the ball to a vast variety of offensive weapons he seldom had last season. He incurred not one sack in his debut, an indication that the offensive line, with healthy veterans mixed with second-year players baptized in fire from last season, was more than enough of a shield for him to stand behind.
In last year’s first exhibition game, Alex Smith looked to be such a bust in his rookie debut that head coach Mike Nolan was forced to knight Tim Rattay as the opening season starter. As the season progressed, surely Alex Smith did not. His struggles to prove himself to 49er fans, and the coaching staff, seemed pathetic as he started in only seven games, threw 11 interceptions, and scored only one touchdown pass all season long. And no one can forget the many games he starred in with his hands seemingly glazed with vegetable oil, not being able to grip a football. Oh my, that was almost the most damaging image of all that I have of Alex Smith from last year.
But on this day in Monster Park, in front of the thousands of 49er faithful, he established a new foundation right before our very eyes. He strutted out on the field with a great air of confidence, took this game completely under his wing, and displayed a confidence so overflowing it could be compared to Niagara Falls on its finest day. There were even two occasions where Alex Smith stepped forward and knowingly threw the football out of bounds due to the coverage and onslaught of Chicago Bears defenders. Before that, he was known to panic and throw into tight coverage to try and make a play, but would end up taking a hit or sack that would knock the ball away from him for a turnover.
“As far as gaining the confidence that he can do it, I think it was a good start for him,” 49ers coach Mike Nolan said.
“It was a ton of fun,” Smith said. “It was exciting. I was anxious about this. I had a lot of energy before the game. It was good to get out there and play pretty much the full first half.”
What happened to Smith after one season ago? We asked, “How could this be?” as we scratched our heads and witnessed a rebirth of epic proportions right before our eyes. This is a man all of the NFL frowned upon after the 2005 season had come to an end. This is a quarterback that concluded his first season with an NFL-low passer rating of 40.8. This is an athlete that struggled to form an identity amongst the ghosts from the Dennis Erickson era, who eventually were busted during the twilight of the 2005 NFL season.
The anxiety among 49er fans was enormous and the residual effects of last season still haven’t worn completely off. Fearing that Alex was a bust was a common slogan among the signs you saw in and around Monster Park. The season ticket holders didn’t want the seats they held for so many years anymore. The attendance at pre-season and regular season games was abysmal at best and even at this opening rally to start the new 2006 NFL season only half of the stadium remained full for his breakout performance.
“I think we did good enough that we can create some confidence and some excitement,’ Smith said. 'But when you get your stuff on film, there’s a lot to learn from.”
Said Nolan: “I think Alex played really well. He showed his mobility and was able to step up in the pocket to make some plays.”
One of the success stories of these new 49ers is the relationship and bonding that has been established between quarterback Alex Smith and #1 wide receiver Antonio Bryant. Both have matured and worked hard throughout the off-season at organized team activities and throughout training camp to establish a rhythm and identity to each other. That was on perfect display last Friday evening as Bryant carried that hard work onto the field at Monster Park. He caught five passes for 54-yards, including a stunning 17-yard hookup on the 49ers 13-play, 68-yard touchdown drive midway through the second quarter. Although Smith evenly distributed his passes among an array of weapons, his signature plays were directed to his #1 man on the passing offense in Antonio Bryant, who clearly broke through as our top threat in the outfield.
“He has the capability to be a difference-maker,” Nolan said. “He and Alex have worked hard since the (off-season program) and I think some of that work showed. It is still early in the preseason, so I don’t want to get too excited. I was also pleased with the protection up front. I think our offensive line played well.”
Alex Smith received overwhelming support during this game. It all started with a new and improved offensive line that finally provided Alex with the maximum protection he deserves to get the job done.
'I’ve got to give credit to the guys around me,” Smith said. “They did a great job with their routes and getting open. They made my job easier. It was nice to get in a rhythm, get into a flow. This preseason is about getting better and growing.”
The competition between starting running back Kevan Barlow and back-up Frank Gore took on a new meaning during this preseason game. Barlow had a collision with Chicago Bears cornerback Nathan Vasher in the first quarter that sent both to the sidelines and Barlow never returned to the game. He suffered a right-thigh contusion on the play, but Nolan indicated that he’s optimistic he’ll see action in the next exhibition game during “The Battle of the Bay” against the Oakland Raiders.
Frank Gore churned up the field at Monster Park with the opportunity to impress coaches and prove that he can be the big load carrier as a starting tailback. He had 10 carries for 49-yards and averaged 4.9-yards per carry in this game. I was impressed, as usual, that this guy’s legs never stop moving…even while he’s in the midst of a pile.
One of the most promising athletes on offense who contributed to the busy night was converted wide receiver Delanie Walker from Central Missouri State. He tied Antonio Bryant for the team lead with five receptions. Walker inevitably helped put the game away with a 14-yard catch and a 16-yard run on consecutive plays during the 49ers final touchdown drive. He completed the game with 54 yards receiving, 38 yards on a kickoff return and 16 yards on an end around.
After the game inside the locker room, team owner John York stepped forward and shook Walker’s hand, in an honorable indication that more than just one person recognized him.
“Good game,” York said.
“Thank you very much sir,” Walker responded.
The 49ers have looked at putting Delanie Walker in as a tight end or a F-back. This is a position where he lines up as a running back, slot receiver or tight end. He listed at more than 240 pounds at the draft this past April, which caused some teams to look away from him. But the 49ers knew exactly what they envisioned him being and the dividends are showing already.
“The coaches told me I would be getting a lot of plays,” said Walker, who still seemed excited moments after the 49ers 28-14 victory. "I was just blessed to get the opportunity.”
And no one can forget what Delanie Walker did with his vicious straight arm on the 38-yard kickoff return that was the game’s signature play. He decked Chicago Bear wide receiver Craig Bragg at the end of the return.
“I like the stiff-arm,” Walker said smiling.
Fourth-round pick and converted quarterback Michael Robinson proved his worth in this game as well, with an exciting performance to take the third-down running back role away from veteran Terry Jackson. He registered sheer brute strength as he piled across the goal line for a 2-point conversion in the fourth quarter. He also showed an amazing ability to break tackles during the game, as he has been on a routine basis in training camp as well. Although he only gained 31 yards on 11 carries, scouts were impressed at the way he ran over would-be tacklers. That was enough to catapult Michael Robinson to the top of the depth chart in the running back category.
On the defensive side of the ball there were all kinds of bright spots as well. Linebacker Jeff Ulbrich returned to the field in rare form as he picked up a fumbled ball by Chicago Bears quarterback Rex Grossman late in the first quarter, and ran it back 32 yards for a touchdown. This was a heads-up play, Mike Nolan said about Jeff, especially after he only played in five games last year because of a torn biceps muscle.
On Chicago’s third offensive play of the game, newly acquired cornerback Sammy Davis turned in the first big defensive maneuver of the game. Davis was acquired in a trade with San Diego earlier this year for 2004 first-round draft choice Rashuan Woods. Sammy Davis was beaten on a reception by Chicago Bear Mark Bradley, but stayed on his heels and dislodged the ball for a fumble that the 49ers recovered and converted into a field goal.
Nose-tackle Isaac Sapoaga played exceptionally well. Shawntae Spencer proved that he is again the elite corner on this defense despite missing some near interceptions.
Some of the negatives turned out to be safety Keith Lewis, who, despite his tendency to block punts, missed an open field tackle that resulted in Chicago’s first touchdown, and cornerback Mike Rumph continued to prove to be a bust with missed tackles. In fact, he missed a total of four tackles in this game. He was drafted in 2002, and is one of the last of former general manager Terry Donahue’s first round choices. He has been practicing with the second-team during training camp sessions, and has been under the scrutiny of the coaches ever since. His coverage skills and tackling ability has always been suspect at best in my opinion. He was supposed to be the elite cornerback we needed several years ago to stand alongside Ahmed Plummer, but he never materialized into anything short of a nickel back or reserve safety.
Mike Nolan is still trying to figure out why his playmaking skills are not where they are supposed to be since 2002. He can’t believe that a player with the seasoned record as he has is struggling with simple basic fundamentals the way he did in this game.
“It’s one thing when you miss a tackle and it’s just you and the ball carrier,” Nolan said. “But he had an opportunity to use the sideline on a couple of them. I can’t say why (Rumph struggled).”
Obviously the question is asked whether he’ll even be considered for a roster spot at this very moment, but Nolan has indicated he’s looking forward to the second game to make an honest evaluation.
New first round picks, tight end Vernon Davis and linebacker Manny Lawson, didn’t see the limelight in this game, but made important contributions nonetheless. Davis was in on more than half the snaps in the first half, and mainly blocked and ran as a decoy. He made a convincing block during a touchdown drive in the second quarter, by erasing second-team outside linebacker Leon Joe to clear space for a 9-yard run by Frank Gore.
Manny Lawson was almost exclusively nullified because he was lined up across from 313-pound left tackle John Tait who has started 94 games in his career. Most of Chicago’s offensive plays were conducted to the right side away from Manny Lawson, further limiting opportunities for him to showcase his abilities and skills. The importance of all of this though, is to see how valuable their contributions are merely by their presence and how it creates ample opportunities for others.
Overall, I came away exceptionally thrilled to be an underdog 49er fan. I saw enough in this one preseason game to warrant genuine optimism and harmony to the tune of being very competitive within our division. Judge and jury I am not, but the execution and performance of our team as a whole was exceptional. I find many of my concerns answered and even more to be just that should this trend continue up and till opening day.