After a one-day-only practice two weeks ago in Santa Clara, quarterback Alex Smith was asked if seeing the 49ers’ new crop of rookies brought back memories.
“Yeah, I guess it just makes me think of how long it has been,” Smith answered. “Those guys come in wide-eyed and (with) a lot of prove. It’s been a long time. This is going on Year 6 for me. So a completely different place.”
Really? Smith may not be wide-eyed anymore, but he still has a lot to prove after five NFL seasons. He reassumed command of the huddle in Week 7 last year and built a solid passer rating of 81.7, but the 49ers ranked 22nd in the league in passing offense at 190.8 yards per game — unimpressive numbers for the franchise that produced Hall of Famers Joe Montana and Steve Young.
Debate rages on how to parcel the blame. Is Smith the weak link, or was he hindered by poor pass protection and predictable play calling? Is the quarterback’s failure to break out as an elite NFL quarterback a reflection of his shortcomings, or of the fact that he cycled through five offensive coordinators in his first five seasons? Usually, you can tell after three years if a quarterback has it or not. Smith now goes into 2010 as a giant question mark.
And though pressure has followed him ever since the 49ers took him with the first pick in the 2005 draft, the expectations have never been higher. The team put important pieces in place around him this offseason — two mauling rookie offensive linemen in tackle Anthony Davis and guard Mike Iupati, a home-run threat in wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr., and a couple of other draft picks, block-first tight end Nate Byham and running back Anthony Dixon, who could help in short-yardage situations.
Now all the 49ers need is for their quarterback to play like the guy who shredded defenses at Utah, starting this coming week with four consecutive days of voluntary full-squad practices.