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What's different about 49ers' Alex Smith?

6/9/2010
Being in the same offense for a second straight season is paying off for Alex Smith. Kyle Terada/US Presswire

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Alex Smith could have passed for an assistant coach Monday were it not for his helmet and jersey.

The San Francisco 49ers' sixth-year quarterback ran practice as the offense worked on third-down protection schemes designed to handle complex blitzes Green Bay might unleash when the teams play a Dec. 5 game at Lambeau Field. Teammates followed closely as Smith walked each position group through its responsibilities against each blitz, complete with contingency plans.

Smith would occasionally confer with offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye, but this portion of practice was Smith's to run, and he was running it with a level of decisiveness that ran counter to his image as a nice guy lacking the assertiveness needed to lead the way quarterbacks must lead.

"You can't fake that," left tackle Joe Staley said.

My first question for Staley after practice Monday made no mention of Smith. That was by design. I asked the straight-talking tackle what was real and what was imagined among 49ers storylines this offseason. If Staley wanted to bring up Smith, he would have to do it on his own. He did, right away, and that lent credence to what I had seen in practice. It seemed like a positive development for Smith as the 2005 No. 1 overall draft choice tries to salvage his career heading into a contract year.

"The real thing that is exciting for us as an offense is just the way Alex has matured this offseason," Staley said. "He is running practices, telling every single person what responsibilities they've got. He has never been that vocal before. The confidence and kind of like the swagger he has is very impressive. I think it also helps that we have a coordinator here for a second year in a row. Alex was able to really bust his ass this offseason and learn every single nuance of the offense."

Instincts must improve

If the 49ers were convinced these developments would make Smith into an upper-tier quarterback, they would have signed him to a contract extension by now. Nobody knows whether Smith can become the confident, more instinctive player the 49ers need to build on an 8-8 season by winning the division and becoming legitimate postseason players.

The No. 1 variable, I think, is whether a second year in the same system can give Smith the knowledge he needs to be comfortable. His former coach at Utah, Urban Meyer, famously and accurately cast Smith as a player needing to know every aspect of a playbook before he can function well consistently. Smith agrees with the characterization.

"I'm not a roll-the-ball-out-there type of guy; I don't really play backyard ball," Smith said after practice Tuesday. "I like to know everything and then when I do, I just go play because I'm not thinking, I'm not second-guessing what this guy did or that guy did, whereas early on, sometimes I can get into that situation where I'm not really sure what is going on around me, so I don't play fast because I'm thinking about everything."

The 49ers have three more months to get Smith where he needs to be on that front. Raye's return for a second season in San Francisco marks the first time in Smith's career he's had the same coordinator in back-to-back seasons. That appears hugely significant given Smith's need for knowledge.

"The first year of an offense, the offseason is spent memorizing plays," Staley said. "This year, in Year 2, we are able to really focus on the communication and know what everybody is doing. Not just what is my job. That just makes everybody more on top of it. If that communication and that sureness gives us .5 more seconds in the pocket or if it makes the receivers break a half-second quicker, it is all worth it."

West Right 22 Z-Hook (or something)

Smith's intelligence is obvious even without knowing he scored 40 points on the Wonderlic exam coming out of college.

Even he had a hard time recalling the various schematic languages he learned under previous coordinators Mike Martz (2008), Jim Hostler (2007), Norv Turner (2006) and Mike McCarthy (2005). For fun, I asked him to translate a basic play into each language. Smith embraced the exercise, but I found it instructive that he was hesitant to make generalities. He seemed to be seeking a perfect answer where none existed.

Smith's rookie year stood out as dramatically different because McCarthy ran a West Coast-type system.

"I can't even remember, like West Right 22 Z-Hook or something," Smith said. "You were using numbers for your protections, whereas then when I got to Norv, I would say Norv and what we are running now, terminology-wise, are the most similar. We're still running Twins Right-Scat Right-525-F-Post-Swing. That is a base play, a staple play of the offense.

"Now, things get taught differently and we execute them a little differently," Smith continued, "but that terminology is the same. Then, with Hostler, my third year, we still kept the digit system. We just started running some different things. Um. I'm trying to even think. So there was like West, East, Far, Near. We ran King and Queen, or Jack and Queen, that was a staple. I'm trying to think."

Smith's answers hinted at the difficulties encountered when teams change systems year after year. They also pointed to his perfectionist side; imprecise, general translations wouldn't suffice when verbatim ones proved elusive.

The Gore factor

The 49ers ran two offenses last season and neither one seemed to accommodate all of the team's best players.

They seemed predictable running Frank Gore into the line from run-oriented formations when Shaun Hill was quarterback. They were likewise easy to figure, if tougher to stop, once Smith's ascendancy to the starting job led to more shotgun formations and obvious pass plays. I was surprised to learn that Gore accounted for six of the 49ers' 14 plays of 35-plus yards after Smith became quarterback during a Week 7 game at Houston (Michael Crabtree was next with five, followed by Vernon Davis with three). But the consistency wasn't there and Gore, an outspoken advocate of a two-back offense featuring a traditional fullback, never seemed comfortable as a runner.

The Philadelphia Eagles' blitz packages exposed the 49ers in Week 15. It was clear Smith had to become more comfortable working under center. More specifically, Smith said it's important for the 49ers to become more diverse in what they run when Smith is under center.

"We were too black and white last year," Smith said. "In certain personnel, we were too run-oriented and in certain personnel and formations, too pass-oriented. I think everyone in this locker room realizes we don't want to be like that. You want to be in balanced looks and really be able to do both. Everyone understands that, from Jimmy all the way down to every man in here, especially me and Frank. We have to be able to do that to really take this offense to the next level."

The bottom line

Smith is more comfortable now that he's getting a second offseason in the same system. The way he's walking teammates through their responsibilities -- something Raye has done previously with other quarterbacks, from Elvis Grbac to Vince Ferragamo -- will give the 49ers a better chance to work in unison even when mistakes are made.

This is probably Smith's best offseason.

"There was a stretch of time during the fall, the second half of the year, where he was really on the spot throwing the ball," Raye said. "Up to this point in April and May, it’s a lot better than it was a year ago at this time. There’s a lot more confidence and his velocity is better, his footwork is improved."

The offense has talent across the board at the skill positions, particularly now that Crabtree is getting a full offseason of work for the first time as a pro. The offensive line should improve overall based on changes to personnel and coaching.

Smith will have to capitalize during the regular season or the 49ers will most likely enter 2011 with another starting quarterback. His last chance in San Francisco looks like his best one.