Can Dorsey do for offense what Smith didn't?

Could starting Ken Dorsey at quarterback actually give the 49ers a better chance of winning this week against Tampa Bay? "It might," coach Mike Nolan said. It might, indeed. While the Niners lose Alex Smith's mobility and athleticism behind center, they also lose his inexperience and learning-on-the-job mistakes. Dorsey brings a better grasp of the offense to the position, and he might surprise people with his improved strength and skills after changing his throwing motion during the offseason.

"We have total confidence in Ken," 49ers offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy said. "We have a lot of young players, and Ken has a lot more experience than some of the other players in this offense playing Sunday's game. We're moving full-steam ahead. I'm excited about Ken Dorsey, and we have extreme confidence he'll run our offense at a high level."

After announcing that Dorsey will indeed start in place of Smith – who didn't practice again because of strained ligaments in his right knee – Nolan also said there are things to like about the third-year veteran that perhaps the team's prized rookie quarterback just isn't able to provide the 49ers just yet.

"He's much like Alex, not the physical part of it, but the mental part and the work ethic," Nolan said. "He's got more experience than Alex. He also won a national championship in college. He's played a lot of football, has thrown a lot of balls and has a nice touch. He has all the intangibles and things you like about a person. You like the way they work and the way they command the huddle. He might even be a little ahead of (Smith), because he's got some NFL experience."

Dorsey's progress since this spring made the new coaching regime comfortable enough to unload sixth-year veteran Tim Rattay before the NFL trading deadline last week. The plan was for Smith to continue to develop as the starter, but the Niners felt Dorsey could be just as good a backup as Rattay once he got up to speed.

The problem is getting Dorsey up to speed. Before Rattay was traded, Dorsey received precious few practice snaps while Rattay and Smith got most of the work. After moving up in the positional pecking order, Dorsey got to run the scout-team offense against the first-team defense last week. On Wednesday, he finally began taking the bulk of the snaps with the first-team offense for the first time.

Since Dorsey had such limited time settling in as Smith's backup before being thrust into the starting role, Nolan is holding back a bit in his hopes that Dorsey can come in and immediately do things that Smith couldn't do to spark the NFL's 31st-ranked offense.

"I don't want to get my hopes too high, but he's done a nice job," Nolan said. "I'm pleased with Ken. We'll see how it goes. I'm saving my optimism for other things. I think that the guys really believe in Ken. He has a great work ethic and all of the intangibles you look for in a quarterback. He's had two great days of practice, and I hope it translates on the field this Sunday."

What's to make anybody think Dorsey can be better this time around than he was last year after he was called upon to take the place of an injured Rattay? After all, Dorsey was 1-6 as a starter during San Francisco's 2-14 season last year in place of Rattay, compiling a 62.4 quarterback rating that ranked last in the NFC among all players who qualified for those rankings.

But this is a new Ken Dorsey.

Dorsey worked rigorously with weights during the offseason to improve both his overall strength and, in particular, the strength of his throwing arm. He now carries 220 pounds on his 6-foot-4 frame and zips his passes consistently with more authority.

But the biggest change, both Dorsey and McCarthy said, has been the change in his throwing mechanics. Dorsey worked all offseason with McCarthy and quarterbacks coach Jim Hostler to improve his throwing motion, and the results have been evident to all.

"It's been something that I really feel like has kind of saved my career, really, because I think it's something that has improved my accuracy on the ball and my velocity on the ball," Dorsey said.

Dorsey previously had a tendency to come across his body with his throws. Now he gets his arm higher when he sets to throw, which has improved both his accuracy and velocity.

"It's something that's helped propel me to kind of a level of being confident enough to know I can make every throw and having no doubt in my mind that I can make every throw, and that's what it takes to be a starter in this league – having no doubt in your mind that you can go out and make every single throw on the football field," Dorsey said. "That's kind of where the development – in terms of the offseason work that I put in with the coaches – that's kind of where that came from, to be sound mechanically and have no doubt in your mind you can make any throw on the field. I feel like I can throw all the routes and be comfortable with it now because my accuracy is a lot better."

Said McCarthy: "He's increased his velocity and he's gotten stronger. Kenny's done a great job in the weight room and he's improved his overall body strength. He's throwing from a higher point of release than he's thrown in the past and he's created more velocity on his football. You see a quarterback that's very comfortable now in the timing of the pass concepts."

That should help a San Francisco offense that bogged down in the passing game with Smith at the controls. Since taking over as the starter from Rattay, Smith – still learning the offense and getting comfortable in it – completed just 17 of 39 passes for 166 yards with five interceptions and no touchdowns. His passer rating stands at an abysmal 17.5.

Dorsey also feels that, while starting San Francisco's final four games last year, he learned a lot that he can apply to his new opportunity as the starter. Dorsey led the 49ers to a 31-28 victory over Arizona to begin that stretch, then finished the season playing against three of the NFL's top defenses of 2004 – third-ranked Washington, second-ranked Buffalo and ninth-ranked New England.

"I think I can definitely build on what happened (last year), just having that experience in a game and having the ups and downs in a game and stuff like that," Dorsey said. "Not a lot went well, but we did some good things last year. I think that four-game stretch that we went through at the end of the year helped me a lot because we played some really good defenses. Having that experience helps playing Tampa Bay this week, because Tampa Bay is a top-5 defense in the league."

Actually, Tampa Bay's defense ranks No. 1 in the NFL entering Sunday's game. But receiver Johnnie Morton, the senior veteran of San Francisco's offense, believes Dorsey will be up to the task.

"Ken's been doing a good job all week," Morton said. "He looks like he's been the starter. He's doing a good job leading us, has been throwing some great passes and he knows the system well. He's making checks at the line like he's been doing it awhile. There's been no drop-off at all. Sometimes when a veteran steps in – because they've been there before, and he knows the system pretty well – sometimes they increase your chances of winning."

To be sure, the 49ers can use an increase in those chances against the league's top-ranked defense. As the starting quarterback this week, Ken Dorsey provides it.

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