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Article Title: Doubts about Alex.
Article Date: July 15th, 2006
By Sydney


Whatever will happen with Vince Young as the first quarterback taken in the 2006 NFL draft? It will be hard to say based upon his many similarities with 2005 NFL draft pick Alex Smith. We are all still waiting to see if Alex Smith will be the next Joe Montana of the San Francisco 49ers.

Not since Jeff Garcia have the San Francisco 49ers seen or even heard of the playoffs. Let alone see 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 assembled in the league especially with new offensive coordinator Norv Turner on board with 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. “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 to the overall game itself. Think back to just last season with Alex Smith and you saw a quarterback that was even unable to hold a football on more than just one occasion.

In fact he had such difficulties maintaining his grip on footballs that it contributed to lopsided defeats to the Washington Redskins and Seattle Seahawks while out on the road. The NFL team owners just recently passed a rule where travel teams will now be permitted to have a dozen of their own balls and are permitted to put them in play when their offense takes the field.

Before. 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.

We witnessed Alex Smith with massive problems in holding on to the football in these two televised games that 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 period.

Norv Turner has nothing but positives 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 that he’ll be successful in more ways than one.

Turner has been working diligently with Alex 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 on the notorious 2005 NFL season the 49ers won as many football games in three seasons as the Seattle Seahawks did last season. 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 that Tim Rattay was the starting quarterback last season. He didn’t last very long before Alex Smith was anointed as the starting quarterback where he started just seven games and played in nine total.

We all want to think that Alex Smith just had a rough rookie outing which in many aspects is typical among rookie quarterbacks as they are adjusting to the speed and hype of the NFL from being in college for four years as the normal. But Alex wasn’t just having a rough rookie season he was absolutely horrendous.

He had 11 interceptions, 11 fumbles and just one touchdown. But on the 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 making him look like the bright young man we all adored as he stood by the podium at the 2005 NFL draft party just drafted by us.

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 here in Santa Clara working so hard with him if he hadn’t been when you really analyze it.

“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 what is just the obvious on what happened back in 2005 with Alex Smith. 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 that will allow him to be even more so.

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 that Alex will have to grow accustomed to. 49er fans haven’t seen anything close to classify 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 them that did just that a few years ago. The field is almost sacred in many aspects with knowledge of what transpired there in the analogs of professional football.

The West Coast offense is being diminished in San Francisco for the first time almost back to the Dick Nolan era. Mike Nolan has assembled an offensive staff headed by Norv Turner to apply whatever is necessary to simplify the offense for Alex Smith, and Turner is the man well known for developing former Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman.

“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.”

But think back to 2005 and recognize the fact 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. Let alone any kind of reliable receivers to throw to.

A running game that 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. Mike 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 is longed for by 49er fans. 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 just a year ago. 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 matchups.

Even though Mike McCarthy is gone over 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 from.

“It was such a great foundation with the drops and the fundamentals,” Smith said one month. “That was stuff I really needed.”

Norv Turner’s system emphasizes speed. He has set the bar high for Alex 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 just 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 based upon 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 bottom line.

Now the San Francisco 49ers have delivered even more insurance to the mentoring of Alex Smith with the acquisition of veteran Trent Dilfer for a seventh round draft pick next year and Ken Dorsey to boot.

He is a veteran 12-yaer quarterback that has made the Pro Bowl while with Tampa Bay, and has led the Baltimore Ravens to a Super Bowl title after the 2000 season. Just recently though he has 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 as a matter of truth.

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 last season 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 already 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 personnel chief Scot McCloughan, who knew Trent Dilfer from his days back with the Seattle Seahawks while Trent Dilfer was mentoring then starting quarterback Matt Hasselback.

McCloughan came away impressed by what Trent Dilfer offered Hasselback and remained selfless at the same time understanding exactly what his purpose was. 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.”

Trent 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,” Dilfer said.

The San Francisco 49ers have 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 No.#3 49er quarterback Cody Pickett to fall back on other athletic skills he has demonstrated to the 49ers in receiving and returning the ball.

Veteran quarterbacks in Trent Dilfer, Jesse Palmer and now Shaun Hill have crowded the position so much that Cody Pickett is being looked at seriously by Mike Nolan as a wide receiver slash special teams standout, in that 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 with four. Mike Nolan is looking at the best possible foundation to support the constant development of his star investment in Alex Smith.

To do that he has surrounded him with veteran quarterbacks and provided him one of the best tutors in the world in offensive coordinator 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 last year. But now the stakes are for real and this will be is 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 as a promising quarterback of the future for this franchise.