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Smith comfortable heading into second year with same offensive scheme

by | Senior NFL Columnist
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Alex Smith had a career year in 2011. His numbers might improve even more this season. (Getty Images)  
Alex Smith had a career year in 2011. His numbers might improve even more this season. (Getty Images)  

SANTA CLARA, Cal. -- People tell me that San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith got lucky last year and that neither he nor the 49ers will be as successful this time around.

I tell them they're wrong.

And here's why: For only the second time in his pro career Smith has the same offensive coordinator from one season to the next -- only the first time, Jimmy Raye lasted only three games into his second year before he was canned. That won't happen with Greg Roman, which is why I figure there should be a comfort zone for Smith that was missing before.

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And there is.

"Sometimes when you're not quite sure," said Smith, "you don't play as fast, and you're not as decisive -- especially for me. When I'm not as decisive when it comes to pulling the trigger there's a big drop off. I think I improve a lot when I'm decisive, pull the trigger with confidence and make confident throws."

You can see it in practice when Smith runs the first-team offense, and you can hear it from teammates who believe, as I do, that this is the season Smith shakes his critics.

"He's very comfortable," said tight end Vernon Davis. "Alex has come a long way. He's making a lot of precise decisions, he's doing everything the coach is asking of him and he's being accurate. He's doing his job, and, at the end of the day, that's all you can ask of him."

Of course, that won't satisfy Fantasy football geeks who want more ... a lot more ... from Smith. But what they fail to understand is that the 49ers are not built to have their quarterback throw for 4,000-5,000 yards and 35 touchdowns. They're built on a controlled offense that features Frank Gore and few mistakes, and they're built on a suffocating defense that hits hard, stuffs the run and forces turnovers.

No, Smith wasn't the reason the 49ers returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2002, but he did play an important role -- making the plays he had to make and committing few mistakes. In fact, in 18 games (16 in regular season and two in the playoffs) the guy had only five interceptions, a career low.

He also had 22 touchdown passes. Yet critics continue to label him a "game manager," which isn't exactly right. Smith is more than that, and he proved it when he beat the New York Giants during the regular season after Gore bowed out in the second half and in a come-from-behind playoff defeat of New Orleans, when he engineered two scoring drives in the last two minutes.

OK, OK, so he couldn't solve the Giants in the playoffs. Tell me what quarterback did. It wasn't Tom Brady. It wasn't Aaron Rodgers, either. And Matt Ryan couldn't produce a single point.

Now tell me which playoff quarterback produced the highest passer rating vs. New York. Uh-huh, it was Alex Smith. So don't tell me he kept San Francisco from reaching the Super Bowl ... because he didn't. Two muffed punt returns did.

Period.

"I've been through so much that I've gotten to the point where I really don't care what people are saying," said Smith, one of the game's most engaging and appealing interviews. "It becomes part of the territory, especially these last few years. With what these quarterbacks are doing yardage-wise and Fantasy-wise, it gets a lot of attention. Unless you're putting up 4,000 yards and you're a Fantasy guy ... but that's just not what we're doing.

"That's not saying there's anything wrong with that. There are different ways to win games, and in some places that's how they're doing it."

Not in San Francisco, but the formula works. In fact, it worked so well that only one team last season -- Green Bay -- had a better record than the 49ers, and this after San Francisco strung together eight straight years without winning.

But the 49ers couldn't have made it without Smith, who became the quarterback San Francisco thought it was getting when it made him the first pick of the 2005 draft. It wasn't that he put up big numbers; it was that he made plays when they were needed. In fact, I don’t know that coach Jim Harbaugh's greatest accomplishment wasn't finding something in Alex Smith that no other 49ers' coach had.

Not only did he restore Smith's confidence; he restored stability to the most important position.

"The coaching of the fundamentals at the position of quarterback is unlike anything I ever had before," Smith said. "I mean, just every little thing ... from my stance under center to how I unload the football. Everything gets coached, and I like it -- and it's on a daily basis.

"Before, I felt a lot of times I had to win games by making plays, forcing plays and making them happen. And I really felt last year it was: Do your job. We have 72 plays in a game, and you need to take it one play at a time and throw the ball where it takes you. If it says, 'Check the ball down,' then check the ball down. And that's what I took from it.

"I really felt I was doing less. I felt like each and every single play I dropped back and tried to throw the ball where the defense told me to go, I tried to make decisions and make accurate throws, and I found myself forcing the ball far less."

Which is why I think Smith goes forward this season, not back. He's more comfortable than he was this time last year. He's more confident, too. He knows the system works. He knows he's not on the clock, with coaches waiting to roll out Colin Kaepernick at quarterback. And he has more weapons at his disposal, with Randy Moss, Mario Manningham and A.J. Jenkins new additions at wide receivers and a deep array of running backs behind Gore.

"Alex Smith is going to have the kind of year he wants to have," Davis said. "He has the weapons to surround him, and he has all the tools. Now it's up to him to go out there and say, 'You know what? I'm going to make this season my best season.' "

Smith won't say it. But I will.

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