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SANTA CLARA

It's a clich?but it's true. The 49ers are putting Alex Smith in a position to succeed.

Thursday was the first day Smith could practice — more on how he did in a minute. You had to notice how much the organization has given him and the team. Frank Gore is back. Braylon Edwards, newly signed, was running routes, Edwards, the big receiver the Niners have craved.

The team has given Smith a Pro Bowl center and a new, quarterback-oriented, offense-oriented head coach. On defense there is a rookie pass rusher and an entirely new secondary. All of this should help Smith succeed — if he's capable of succeeding.

That's the rub. Smith is the hub of all these new people. Everything depends on him. Can he succeed? That's the question of all questions, and at this moment it is unanswerable.

Easier to answer is this. How did Smith do on Thursday?

He was excellent in the red zone, throwing exactly where he needed to, understanding the offense, being precise. He was excellent at all passes 15 yards or under. His ball sometimes wobbled on longer passes. He got picked off, by my count, three times. He had two passes tipped — and getting tipped is a Smith specialty.

Colin Kaepernick has a stronger arm, no question. The ball leaps out of his hand. But Kaepernick was weak in the red zone, often not knowing where to throw, not understanding the offense as well as Smith.

Afterward, a reporter asked if Smith felt nervous.

"I'd like to say, &‘no,' but of course it's been seven, eight months since the last time I practiced," he said. "It's been too long. I missed it out there, bodies flying around. I was pretty jacked up. It didn't help having to watch basically a week. You could sign but you can't do anything. It was great to finally get out there."

Jim Harbaugh spoke about Smith when a reporter asked how the coach will evaluate Smith. Read the following Harbaugh quotes carefully. They give an insight into who he is:

"We're just going to coach him up, get to where it needs to be, what it needs to look like moving the offense, being opportunistic, scoring. That position is right in the middle of that. He is game and ready for the challenge, so we'll take it one day at a time."

It's hard for me to count the clich? in that quote, but they abound. When a man uses clich? with such eagerness, he's trying to avoid answering. To help Harbaugh come to the point, I asked, "How would you describe the difference between an Alex Smith pass and a Colin Kaepernick pass?

Harbaugh: I don't compare them.

Cohn: I don't mean compare better or worse. Just describe. That's not comparing.

Harbaugh: They're both good.

Cohn: Does one guy's pass look a certain way on an out pattern and another guys' pass look a certain way, or are they identical?

Harbaugh: They're both good.

Cohn: That's not descriptive, though. That's evaluating. I'm just asking what it looks like.

Harbaugh: What it looks like? Looks good.

Cohn: OK, I don't like the answer but you can move on.

Later, another reporter asked Harbaugh to compare this year's team to last year's.

"I hate to compare things, I really do," Harbaugh said. "Whenever you compare things, whether it be one player to another or this team to last year's team, somebody gets diminished. I like to avoid it. Just so you know, that's how I feel about it."

Cohn: That's what you were doing with me?

Harbaugh: I was.

Cohn: I got the sense of that.

Harbaugh: Someone always gets diminished.

Cohn: I'm never going to ask you that again.

Harbaugh: I appreciate that.

Well, that was quite an exercise in evasion. Harbaugh never will compare his quarterbacks — and that probably applies to their eating habits, taste in clothes and movies.

So be it. That's where I come in. Based on where they are now, Smith clearly must be the starter. But Kaepernick has more tools — better arm, for sure. At some point, he will make things hot for Smith, especially if Smith cannot move the offense. For now, one thing is certain. When it comes to passing, "They're both good."

For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, Go to the Cohn Zohn at cohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at lowell.cohn@pressdemocrat.com.