Education of Alex goes back on road

Rookie quarterback Alex Smith showed the first signs of why the 49ers selected him with the top overall pick in the draft. Now, coach Mike Nolan would like to see him show a little more of a sustained high-level performance on Sunday when the 49ers face the NFC West-champion Seahawks.

"Boy, if he could have 60 minutes like first 30 minutes," Nolan said, referring to the 49ers' 17-10 loss last week to the Cardinals. "He's only played in three games. This was only one game, but I'm pleased with what I saw."

What Nolan said impressed him even more than Smith's first-half performance, in which he completed 11 of 12 passes for 138 yards, was how Smith acted in the team's meeting rooms on Monday, when he was going over the game with his teammates.

"He commands his position and he doesn't shiver in his boots about talking to the guys," Nolan said. "It was good. I was pleased to see that. It's very unusual for a young player like him to do that."

Smith took full responsibility for his second-half mistakes, which included three interceptions. Nolan said Smith was partly - but not entirely - to blame for the interceptions. Some of the turnovers were the result of protection breakdowns, bad pass routes and, of course, poor decisions by Smith.

"So much of this offense revolves around the quarterback," Smith said. "Talking in those meetings is part of the leadership that's expected out of the position. You have to admit your mistakes when you make a mistake, and you have to point the finger at yourself. As a quarterback, it's my job to get things figured out."

Smith figures to do a lot of learning in the final four weeks of the season, as the 49ers hit the road for three straight games. After facing the Seahawks, they travel to meet the Jaguars and Rams before finishing the season at home against the Texans.

Smith is about to face a huge challenge. His one road start resulted in the team's embarrassing 52-17 loss to the Redskins. He said it's easy to get into a routine at home because everything remains the same. On road trips, there are so many variables.

"Your schedule is pretty much the same when you're at home," Smith said. "On the road, things change. You try to stay with the same structure, but you're on a different field and in a different environment.

"I think it'll be a great experience for me."

The 49ers (2-10) have been awful on the road this season, going 0-5 and getting outscored by an average of 22 points. The club has searched for ways to turn things around, but it probably has more to do with a lack of talent than a lack of attitude.

"It would be one thing if we were 8-0 at home and 0-8 on the road," Nolan said. "But looking at our record the last two years, it's not like there's a real significant difference between road and home. But there is something to the fact that we haven't played as well on the road."

The 49ers are playing three straight on the road for the first time since 1991. The 49ers have won just twice in their last 22 games away from home, including one victory in each of the 2003 and '04 seasons.

"When you're traveling, it's just you and the guys you're with and everybody's against you," 49ers defensive lineman Bryant Young said. "You got to go in with that mindset that it's you and against the world, because nobody's going to be rooting for you.

"We do have to do a better job of understanding the importance of the trip and knowing it's a business trip."


--- The 49ers find themselves in contention for the top overall draft pick, or what a lot of people are calling the Reggie Bush Sweepstakes.

Coach Mike Nolan said he wants to get a few more victories as the 49ers conclude their season, even if he knows that would prevent the 49ers from having the option of picking the dynamic USC running back.

"If we can win out and pick at 13 and get Bush at 13, that would be great, wouldn't it?" Nolan said. "Do you think that'll happen?"

Although Bush is an underclassman, Nolan made it known that he would covet that kind of playmaker on his team.

"I enjoyed watching him the other day when he jumped from the 5-yard line into the end zone," Nolan said. "That was nice. I hadn't seen him in a while; that looked good. I think I saw Priest Holmes do that a time or two. He looks like a good player."

--- Quarterback Alex Smith threw just eight interceptions during his college career at Utah while tossing 47 touchdown passes. However, thus far in his professional career Smith has already thrown eight interceptions but has yet to throw a touchdown pass.

"This is something I'm definitely not accustomed to, but my job is to get better right now and give this team the best chance to win," Smith said. "If that's me throwing a bunch of touchdowns or not throwing a bunch of touchdowns, the bottom line is to win games."

--- Nolan said he is pleased with his coaching staff and vice president of player personnel Scot McCloughan. But he intimated that some changes could be coming to the organization upstairs.

When Nolan was asked about the lack of a veteran NFL person in the organization, he said it was an aspect of the organization he might address during the off-season. In the past, the 49ers have had such well-respected men as Bill Walsh, John McVay and Bill McPherson as a resource for coaches and the personnel department.

"As I evaluate everything about the organization, including myself day-in and day-out, I make a lot of notes about a lot of things that need to be done at the right time," Nolan said this week. "But right now is not the right time for that."

Nolan said he seeks the advice of people with whom he has coached in the past. He is known to be very close with former NFL coach Dan Reeves.

"They don't have to work here to be helpful to me," Nolan said. "You always call on your mentors. I've worked for several very good coaches and so I feel very fortunate that I can call on those people from time to time. And they've been extremely helpful to me.

"I keep an open mind as far as we go forward as far as this organization and what the structure will look like to make sure it's right on the field."

--- Nolan has come under fire in the Bay Area for some of his coaching decisions, including a bizarre sequence in which he called a timeout to get his defense to regroup after Frank Gore's fumble Sunday against the Cardinals. Then, he decided to challenge the fumble call. When the call was upheld, the 49ers had lost their remaining two timeouts. Nolan said he got bad information from the officiating crew and that he never would have challenged the call if he thought he ran the risk of losing a timeout.

"Usually, they're very helpful," Nolan said of the officials. "In that case, it just so happens, I got the short end of the stick."

--- Safety Keith Lewis makes his first career start on Sunday. But he likely would have gotten the call several weeks ago if he weren't so valuable to the team on special teams.

After veteran Tony Parrish went down with a broken leg, Lewis was considered to replace him in the starting lineup. But Nolan ultimately opted on sending Ben Emanuel onto the field instead of Lewis.

Nolan explained to Lewis that it was because the team could not afford to take him off special teams. Lewis proved his worth last week when he blocked the second punt of his NFL career.

"It was definitely frustrating," Lewis said. "I have a goal of being a starter some day in this league, so it was tough to swallow at the time. As time goes on, it makes a little more sense to me."

--- Assistant head coach/linebackers Mike Singletary is already being talked about as a potential head coaching candidate for next season. His name has been tossed around in regards to the Lions job.

Singletary said he has not heard anything about how serious of a candidate he might be for that job.

--- When the season began, the 49ers' linebackers were considered the strength of the team. It was one of the reasons the club decided to implement a 3-4 defensive scheme.

But the 49ers traded Jamie Winborn to the Jaguars, and starter Jeff Ulbrich was lost after five games due to a torn biceps muscle. Looking ahead to next season, the linebackers are probably the club's biggest question mark.

Outside linebacker Julian Peterson, the club's franchise player, is set to be an unrestricted free agent, and the 49ers do not appear likely to retain him with a one-year deal at $8.7 million or more. They have to make a decision just how much they're willing to spend to retain Peterson's services.

Peterson, who missed 10 games last season with a torn Achilles' tendon, returned to form in the season opener with 2.5 sacks. But he has been shut out since. Peterson ranks fourth on the team with 59 tackles. He is tied for third with six passes broken up.

Also, leading tackler Derek Smith is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent, along with outside linebacker Andre Carter. Smith leads the 49ers with 116 tackles this season, the ninth straight season he has gone over 100 stops.

Carter has been a bit of a disappointment this season, registering just 3.5 sacks. He had 12.5 sacks his second season in the league, but managed just 12 sacks in his next 34 games.

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