The Alex Era begins with a big thud

The 49ers took their first babysteps with Alex Smith on Sunday, and the result was a predictable offensive crawl. But what, really, did anybody expect? The Niners apparently weren't expecting much from their rookie QB in his starting debut. "It's a long-term investment," explained receiver Brandon Lloyd. "You're not going to get a quick return on that investment." And it was too bad, too, because Smith bombed on a day when the San Francisco defense came to play vs. the mighty Indianapolis Colts.

Smith came to play, too. But just as many suspected beforehand, he wasn't ready for the enormous challenge handed to him earlier this week by coach Mike Nolan.

With Smith responsible for five turnovers, the San Francisco offense made just one visit inside the Indianapolis 36-yard line, and the 49ers trudged off the field at Monster Park on the short end of a lopsided 28-3 result despite a strong defensive effort that limited the Peyton Manning-led Indianapolis offense to just one touchdown through three quarters.

But the outcome never was in question. Because, every time the 49ers threatened to get back in the game, Smith would either do something directly or indirectly to take them out of it.

"I knew it was going to be hard," Lloyd said. "I wasn't expecting it to be anything else. But I didn't expect it to be terrible."

Terrible would be one accurate description of another floundering performance by the San Francisco offense, which produced three points or less for the third time in the past four weeks. This time, it was Smith leading the charge – retreat? – instead of veteran Tim Rattay, who started the first four games of the season.

Maybe the 49ers would have been better off with Rattay. Smith completed nine of 23 passes for 74 yards, was sacked five times, lost a fumble to end San Francisco's final drive and threw four interceptions – the first of which was returned 24 yards for a touchdown by Indianapolis linebacker Cato June with the Colts holding just a 7-0 lead midway through the second quarter.

It would only get worse for Smith, who had guided the 49ers to four first downs on their first three drives before that play. Smith would throw two more interceptions in the next five minutes, 32 seconds, though the San Francisco defense – which produced three turnovers of its own – made sure the Colts didn't cash them into points.

"No one said it was going to be easy," said Smith, who finished with a passer rating of 8.5 for the game. "I have a long road to go down. I have to learn from this game and take away from it what I can. I have to learn when I can force things and when I need to throw the ball away."

Just as during his two preseason starts in August, Smith looked overmatched when he needed to make plays to keep the 49ers in the game. He got plenty of help from the running game, as tailback Kevan Barlow produced a season-high 99 yards rushing on 18 carries and backup Frank Gore contributed 31 yards on the ground.

But when the 49ers needed to go to the air, it was a different matter.

Smith completed a 13-yard pass to Johnnie Morton to keep the 49ers' second drive of the afternoon moving momentarily. He wouldn't complete another pass to a San Francisco wideout the rest of the day.

"I was hoping that would give our offense some momentum," Morton said of that second drive that reached the Indianapolis 36 before stalling. "Obviously, it's been lackluster the past few weeks. Unfortunately, we could just not pick it back up. I think we showed some flashes of good offense, but the thing you need to be – especially in the NFL against a good team – is consistent."

The most consistent thing about the San Francisco offense Sunday was that its drives would end with a punt or a turnover. Four drives in a span of six possessions ended with Smith interceptions. Five of seven drives ended with a Smith turnover. Five other possessions ended with punts. The 49ers finished with 177 yards of total offense, converting on just three of 14 third-down plays.

It was so bad that the 49ers were making the 12 times their offense moved the chains sound like moral victories.

"I felt like we made steps as an offense because we made first downs," said Barlow, who had several nice runs and also led the 49ers with three receptions for 29 yards. "That's something we had a hard time doing last week."

The lack of offense again made it hard on San Francisco's beleaguered defense, which put up a good battle before wearing down and allowing two touchdowns in the fourth quarter after lengthy Indianapolis drives.

After the Colts went 72 yards on seven plays for a touchdown on their first possession, the Indianapolis offense lost a fumble in the end zone (to end a 95-yard drive), punted on its next two possessions, then saw two of its next three possessions end in interceptions by cornerback Bruce Thornton and linebacker Derek Smith.

But Smith and the offense could do nothing with those opportunities.

And that leaves San Francisco 1-4 and looking for answers at its bye week after a third blowout loss in four weeks. Even with their new $50 million quarterback in the saddle, the 49ers didn't get many answers Sunday.

"You take the good with the bad," said Nolan, who was abrupt after the game and answered all of three questions during his post-game news conference. "It's a work in progress. We have a lot of work to do. That continues to be the case."

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