New rule could help Smith avoid 'slipsies'

One of the more puzzling aspects of quarterback Alex Smith's first season in the NFL was his inability to keep his grip on the football. He fumbled 11 times in his seven starts, but on several occasions the ball slipped out of his hand.

In his first two road starts, the ball squirted away from him six times, resulting in one incomplete pass, four fumbles and one botched handoff. Moreover, Smith said that some of his incomplete passes during a 9-for-22 passing performance against the Seahawks were off target because the ball slipped as he was throwing.

But thanks to a new NFL rule, Smith does not have to be at the mercy of the footballs that are handed to him when the game begins. Now, both the home and visiting teams are allowed to prepare 12 footballs to their liking to be used when their team is on offense.

"The problems I had in the past with the balls were always on the road," Smith said. "It'll be nice to travel with our own."

The rule allowing the visiting team to prepare their own balls for use in games was ratified this spring at the NFL annual meeting in Orlando, Fla. The suggestion was brought before the competition committee at the behest of Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, who rallied the support of the league's other signal-callers.

"I think enough of the quarterbacks got together and decided to do something about it," Smith said.

Niners equipment manager Steve Urbaniak said he prepares the team's footballs by rubbing them with a wet towel to remove the thin slick layer that coats new footballs. He said he tried to use the same mud that major league baseball clubs use to rub balls, but it did not work as well.

"Alex took some criticism for dropping some balls, but, believe me, the rest of the quarterbacks had the same issue and they got tired of dealing with it," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "It (was) the only sport that doesn't rub down the balls. Baseball rubs down the balls, basketball rubs down the balls, heck, I believe soccer rubs down the balls."

However, the slick footballs might have been only part of the reason. Smith intimated last season that his mechanics were also part of the problem, as he often would rush his passing motion to get rid of the ball quickly, creating his problem.

--- Niners reserve quarterback Cody Pickett has no regrets in declining the club's suggestion to go to NFL Europe for some seasoning.

Vice president of player personnel Scot McCloughan said he, coach Mike Nolan and former offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy wanted Pickett to play football this spring. Pickett said he believes he had more to gain by studying film and working out at the club's Santa Clara practice facility.

"One thing it came to down to -- because McCarthy was pushing for it hard, I was pushing for it hard and so was Nolan -- but we're not going to send anybody who does not want to go," McCloughan said.

When asked about the club's desire to send Pickett to NFL Europe, Nolan said he later changed his mind on the topic.

"He wasn't (excited) about it, but I'd have said, 'Go,' if I really felt it," Nolan said. "Yeah, I remember I changed my mind. I didn't like it. I was all for it at first, but then I changed my mind."

Pickett is in competition with Jesse Palmer for the third spot on the depth chart at quarterback behind starter Alex Smith and backup Trent Dilfer. In his first two NFL seasons, Pickett has attempted just 45 passes, completing 18 for 195 yards with no touchdowns and four interceptions.

"So hopefully next year we can send him because I think it's valuable for a quarterback to just go play," McCloughan said of Pickett.

At the time when Pickett made his decision to remain in California, he did not know McCarthy would be leaving to become Packers coach and he would have to learn a new offense under offensive coordinator Norv Turner. Pickett says with the changes that have occurred, he would have felt hopelessly behind if he had spent spring in Europe. Pickett has not missed one day of the team's off-season program, which has been going for the past two months.

"I want to be here," Pickett said. "I have a chance to learn the new offense. I've had a chance to get a jump on the offense. To come back here after Europe might have been difficult because there's a lot of stuff going on here with a new offense.

"I think it's been very beneficial to be here and meet with coach Turner and (quarterbacks coach Jim) Hostler every day and get comfortable with what we're doing."

--- Defensive tackle Anthony Adams and safety Mike Adams, who both grew up in single-mother homes, were scheduled to join tackle Jonas Jennings in hosting 15 mothers and their children from a local domestic violence shelter at the 49ers' practice facility on Mother's Day.

The group will be treated to a personal tour of the facility and a viewing of the 49ers' highlight film in the team meeting room, and will participate in a discussion with the players about the importance of mothers and why showing respect to family is so important.

In addition, each woman will receive a corsage, children's goodie bag and two complimentary tickets to the 49ers' home season opener against the Rams on September 17.

"I am going to tell the kids to listen to their mothers," Adams said. "I can relate to all of them. Sometimes kids think they know it all and they need reminding that they should listen because their mothers have been there and done that. Without their mother's support, they would be lost."

--- The 49ers will not hold another minicamp before the club reports July 27 for training camp. The 49ers' first day of training camp practice is set for July 28. Instead of holding another minicamp, Nolan said he has decided that the club's organized team activities beginning in late May will replace the usual voluntary minicamp.

--- Tight end Vernon Davis, the No. 6 overall draft pick, and outside linebacker Parys Haralson, a fifth-round selection, provided one of the more memorable moments of the three-day camp when they got in a spirited shoving match away from the ball as Davis was blocking.

"They got a little excited, didn't they? That was good," Nolan said. "That's part of the deal. If you're slugging somebody all day, don't you think at some point the guy's going to slug back?"

--- At the conclusion of the 49ers' three-day minicamp, Nolan reiterated his plan to maintain the 3-4 scheme he installed last season. Prior to the draft, the 49ers were severely lacking in outside linebackers because of the free-agent losses of starters Julian Peterson and Andre Carter.

Nolan said Haralson and three-year veteran Corey Smith will play the position Carter held, and first-round pick Manny Lawson will take over on the other side for Julian Peterson.

Smith figures to have a much greater role than a year ago, when he recorded two tackles on defense in 14 games after winning a roster spot with an impressive exhibition season.

"I would hope he'd play a bigger role this year," Nolan said. "We'll see how that goes. We're hopeful of that and we'll just have to see if he can handle it. He did a real nice job in preseason last year and then we moved him into the full-time linebacker spot, and so some of the coverage things we do took a little bit off for him. But he's doing better."

--- The 49ers are hopeful recently acquired backup quarterback Trent Dilfer will be available to take part in the team's organized team activities after undergoing surgery in February to repair a partially torn patellar tendon in his right knee.

The 49ers' OTAs are scheduled for May 29-June 15. Players are scheduled to report to training camp on July 27 at the team's Santa Clara (Calif.) practice facility.

"I'm certain it's not so long that he wouldn't be here for training camp," Nolan said of Dilfer. "As far as the OTAs go, that's what I'm hopeful of. He did say that he went out the other day and started to do some drops and he said it felt good."

Seven other 49ers were held out of the team's recently completed minicamp, but the club believes all but three of those players will be ready for the team's next round of off-field activities.

Nolan said center Jeremy Newberry (right knee), safety Tony Parrish (left leg) and receiver Derrick Hamilton (left knee) probably will not get back on the field prior to training camp. Parrish had a spiral fracture that ended his season after nine games last year.

"I don't know how long his will be," Nolan said. "I'm looking for training camp. If he can do it by the OTAs, great, but I'm not banking on it. We'll see. We haven't made any decision yet."

Three players who ended the season on injured reserve and running back Frank Gore, who underwent off-season surgeries on both shoulders, are expected back during the OTAs. Running back Kevan Barlow (left knee), tackle Jonas Jennings (right shoulder) and tight end Eric Johnson (right foot) did not take part in team work at the mini-camp but are expected back on the field later this month.

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