Ready or not, here comes Alex Smith

Ready or not, here comes Alex Smith, the 49ers' future at quarterback. And now, in the latest quickie development, San Francisco's present at quarterback, too. The 21-year-old rookie already is preparing for the worst, so this deal about the Niners making him their new starter overnight can't help but make both him and the team better. At least, that's the story line that was being tossed out Wednesday, and it's the one that everybody is sticking to, including Smith himself.

When asked if he was expecting this sudden switch just four games into his debut season, Smith responded, "I guess I really wasn't." But now that the move has been made, Smith has to stand up to it.

He realizes this better than anybody. When asked point-blank if he is ready for this, Smith didn't hesitate. "It doesn't really matter right now," he responded. "That's an irrelevant question. I'm going to be ready on Sunday."

How ready Smith can hope to be when the Indianapolis Colts and their sack-happy defense come to town is the much better question.

To be sure, Smith has come a ways since his starting audition in August, when he looked lost and slightly overwhelmed while playing with the first unit – and against opposing first units – in San Francisco's first two preseason games.

But the kid still is learning. And, significantly, he still has so much to learn. Starting this Sunday, the classroom will become filled with competitive urgency, and nothing but the real thing can really prepare anybody for that.

For the past month, the snaps Smith has been taking in practice have been primarily as a scout-team quarterback working an opponent's offense against San Francisco's first-team defense. He has looked good doing that, but it's not exactly the same as having Dwight Freeney breathing down your blind side.

"I'm much more confident in what I'm doing and just playing football," Smith said. "Just to be out here watching games and just practicing and playing got me back to not thinking so much and just reacting. There are definitely different things for me to learn. I'm going to learn a lot out there on Sunday and I'm looking forward to that. I'm going to learn a lot every Sunday."

While Smith learns, it's open to speculation what will become of San Francisco's season in general and offense in particular.

Coach Mike Nolan talks about his 1-3 team still keeping its eyes on the prize of first place in the NFC West, and the fact that the 49ers are just one game out of that spot at the quarter pole of the season. But with the 4-0 Colts waiting this week – and a slew of teams off to fast starts to come in the weeks ahead – the season can get away from the 49ers awfully quickly while they break in their wunderkind quarterback who some say still is a little wet behind the ears.

While Nolan said his expectations for Smith "are certainly different (now) from what they'll be a year or two from now," the coach indicated Smith is in the saddle to stay as San Francisco's new quarterback.

"The objective is to win, so whoever puts us in the best situation will be the guy," Nolan said. "I don't want to go back and forth; that's not what I'm about. As long as I see improvement and Alex is doing the thing that we need, I'd suspect we'd stay (with Smith)."

When asked if he'd be more tolerant of mistakes Smith makes than those of, say, a veteran like Tim Rattay – who had the starting position pulled out from underneath him Tuesday – Nolan said, "Probably so."

So, it seems, the 49ers are prepared for it to hurt to watch for a while.

"Alex is a talented kid and he's the future of this offense," Niners receiver Brandon Lloyd said. "He has all the talent in the world, but you have to have the experience. You have to play on Sunday to understand this game. Nothing can take the place of that experience.

"It's time for Alex to get this experience. He needs development. Alex needs this and it's going to be good for him. He needs to lose. He needs to get in these games and feel how this feels. He needs to get in a game and win it and get his confidence built up and learn from his mistakes. He needs this kind of work."

And what about the team? Is what's good for Smith also good for the 2005 49ers, as far as winning is concerned?

"I don't expect this to affect us in a negative way," Lloyd said. "We're all going through this. It's good for all of us."

Smith's counterpart Sunday – Indianapolis' Peyton Manning, the two-time NFL MVP – went through a similar experience during his rookie season of 1998, though Manning was thrown into the starting lineup from the very beginning and took every snap that season.

Now, after starting the first 116 games of a career that already is reaching legendary proportions, Manning said that getting thrown into the fire early was the best thing to happen to him – and the best thing that can happen for Smith and, ultimately, the 49ers.

"I say play, play, play, play, play, play," said Manning, who gave Smith tips of the trade during an hour-long phone conversation between the two QBs earlier this year. "That is what I did. The sooner you play, that's the sooner you taste the live bullets on the field. You can only learn so much on the chalkboard. The sooner you play, the sooner you get used to the speed of the game. My rookie year, I got more and more comfortable every single week. That's what it's all about."

The Colts finished 3-13 in Manning's rookie season, but at least they were putting big points on the board before it was finished. The next year, they improved dramatically to 13-3 and won their division.

There's little doubt that – for everybody concerned – it's going to take a while to get comfortable with Smith running a San Francisco offense that currently ranks 30th in the league.

That, obviously, includes Smith.

"I think of the phrase, ‘Keep punching,'" Smith said. "I'm going to keep swinging and keep throwing. I'm a rookie. I'm young. I'm probably going to take some shots and get knocked down, but I just have to get back up and keep going forward. Everything is not going to be golden for me, and there are going to be some bad times. That's not unexpected."

So now everybody knows what to expect. The 49ers are going forward with Alex Smith, and they just hope that doesn't mean going backward first.

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