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.
For what it's worth, Smith's coaches and teammates claim to see a shift in his demeanor, perhaps the result of heading into the season as the unquestioned starter for the first time in three years.
"There's a tremendous change in him from the way he carries himself and walks in and out of the building with an air of confidence, a totally different guy," said Jimmy Raye, who becomes the first NFL coach to serve as Smith's offensive coordinator for two straight years.
"If you want to digress to when he came here a year ago and he was six or seven weeks into the year, it's a totally different guy. In terms of his confidence, familiarity with what he's doing, his sense of entitlement, I think all of those things are manifesting themselves right now because of the success that he had, even though some people may deem it as minimal or maybe even being a little suspect about it."
Wide receiver Josh Morgan has seen the change as well. Morgan believes Smith grew more confident each week of the 2009 season, but he saw dramatic growth when the offense got together for workouts this offseason.
"He took total control over everything," the third-year receiver said. "Like with the offense, we'd go out there and half the time Alex would just run the whole thing, run the whole practice without the coaches even being there. That's what you like to see in your quarterback. You like to see him with that type of fire, take that type of leadership. I mean, he's spitting the plays out, he's explaining everything and it's just like, &‘Wow. Thank you.'"