Long run has only just begun for Smith

As everybody well knows, it was a rocky rookie season for Alex Smith, the No. 1 overall pick in the land last spring. But the 49ers don't go into this sure-to-be-active offseason looking down at Smith's struggles in his debut season. "The thing that makes me feel the best about him is that he's not shaken my confidence in any way," coach Mike Nolan said. The 49ers, obviously, are betting on the come with Smith, who is expecting his second NFL season to be much, much different than his first.

Nobody needs to tell Smith his first season as the team's savior at quarterback was a major disappointment. He was there. He lived through it. But he went into it with his eyes open and wasn't fazed by all the adversity he faced during the tumultuous 4-12 roller coaster ride, which included transition throughout the unit around him, lack of talent at several offensive positions and a knee injury that forced him to miss five games in the middle of the season.

It almost seems as though Smith knew what to expect. While many would have liked an immediate showing of the potential that convinced the 49ers to select him with the first pick of the 2005 college draft, Smith seemed resigned to inevitable growing pains throughout his first season. It's the same thing he went through at the University of Utah, where he developed into a star prospect in his second season as a starter while developing and learning the system during his first.

Smith's not promising a magical transformation in 2006 to become the dominant quarterback he was in his final year of college, but he says the lessons learned in 2005 and the time he will put in during the offseason will make him a different quarterback at the pro level next season.

Maybe even make him the quarterback the 49ers thought they were getting with the No. 1 pick and $50 million contract they paid for him.

"There was a reason I showed so much improvement over one year to the next (in college)," Smith said. "It was because of that offseason, because of the time I put in, because of the time everyone on that team put in."

Smith already is anticipating a full offseason to work in the system and with his 49ers teammates. He has been through the hard part, Smith said. Everything now is in place for him to grow and develop into the quarterback the 49ers feel he is destined to become.

"Talking to the players and guys on this team, I'm just looking forward to coming back in Year 2 and not everything is brand new again," Smith said. "I'm not meeting everyone in the locker room again for the first time, and going through the minicamps and (organized team activities) and offseason, you're not doing that for the first time again, and then the whole season. So it will be nice to come back and expect what's going to happen and to know what's going to happen."

When Smith knows what's going to happen, he's a guy who can make it happen.

His college coach Urban Meyer, correctly predicted that Smith would appear non-functional at times until he completely absorbed the system and his role in it. Smith obviously still is absorbing the intricacies and complexities of San Francisco's offensive scheme, but he did begin to make progress as a functional NFL quarterback while leading the 49ers to back-to-back victories to end the season.

"As far as those last two weeks, I felt really good as far as decision making, knowing where to go with the ball, read defenses and understanding what we're trying to do," Smith said. "I really feel like I've taken some pretty good steps. Now I really look forward to a lot of throwing in the offseason. When we do come back here in a couple of months, I look forward to really start throwing a lot of routes, building the timing, building that relationship with all the receivers – especially because we're so young at the position – and building it as we head into next season."

Until the last few games, Smith most often appeared overmatched at the position, leading several to doubt his selection at No. 1 or the possibility that he'll develop into a winning quarterback worthy of that selection.

But to be fair, and practical, it is much too early for anybody to make those kind of dramatic conclusions about Smith. He is a 21-year-old kid who was thrown into an impossible situation in 2005. He still possesses the size, skills and mindpower to succeed in the NFL. Those may be the three most important ingredients for success at quarterback.

"I think he's done a good job under the circumstances," Nolan said. "(The knee injury) stunted his whole growth right in the middle of the season. This last stretch, he's gotten better each week, and I expect him to do the same (in the future)."

After Smith had such an inauspicious debut season, what makes Nolan so confident in feeling that way?

"The reasons we took him were because of the intangibles," Nolan said. "That's what makes a very good quarterback. That's what makes a great quarterback."

Nolan went on to explain the positives he has seen from Smith so far, things that people on the outside might not necessarily have gotten a glimpse of yet.

"You're in the arena because you physically can do it," Nolan said. "He's got that. Where you rate in the arena because you physically have it is OK with me. It doesn't get me jacked. If you can throw it 150 yards, I really don't care because the field's only 100 yards long. I don't get excited about that. What I do get excited about is the guy that commands the huddle well, has the respect of his teammates, is the first to come in and the last to go home, is a gym rat and serious about football, has accomplished a lot, is a winner, stays positive all the time, and interceptions don't take him down. All of those things are what you need to be a quarterback that's good in this league. He's a head-high, hard-working guy. Everything about him leads me to believe he's going to be a good quarterback."

Relatively speaking, Smith was a bad quarterback this season. He completed 84 of 165 passes (51 percent) for 875 yards, throwing 11 interceptions and just one touchdown pass while being sacked 29 times. His final quarterback rating was just 40.8 – one of the worst ever for an overall No. 1 pick who saw significant playing time as a rookie.

But all that now is behind Smith. He's chalking it up to experience – the tough times and hard lessons learned that will allow him to prosper in the future.

"It has been a long season and a long year for me," Smith said. "Football is so different because you play that game and then you kind of forget it and then move on to the next week. Obviously, it's been hard, and we've had some tough things happen to us this year, but I think we truly have shown so much improvement and really grown.

"But we have to carry that into the offseason, because this offseason is going to really make a difference for next year. It's really kind of a continuation of the momentum we've built up here at the end of the season. It really needs to continue into this offseason and into the start of next season. That's the key, to really put in some work this offseason and get it rolling into the beginning of next season. Otherwise, (the strong finish) would have been for nothing."

Nolan remains assured that Smith will prove to everybody he's a No. 1 overall pick who'll turn into something special for the 49ers.

"No quarterback - no player - is going to take us to the promised land alone," Nolan said. "Only from personal experience do I say that confidently. I do expect him to be an integral part of it, to play well and to keep getting better all of the time. I'm confident he will, because Alex is built with those things. He doesn't have to accumulate those things. He doesn't have to acquire the ability to sit in the huddle and then call a play. He's got all of that. What he has to do is just keep playing, play this offense and develop with the guys around him, who are developing at the same time. Unfortunately for him, that slows him down a little bit, but in the long run, that's not a bad thing."

And the long run has only just begun.

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