Smith seeking changes in quest for success

Wearing a closely-cropped buzz haircut and a brown goatee with sprinkles of hair running up the edges of his cheeks to form connecting sideburns, this is not the same fresh-faced Alex Smith that flashed into 49erland last year as a wonderboy No. 1 pick. "Just changing it up," Smith said of his new look in 49ers training camp. And, as Smith well knows, there's much more he needs to change in 2006.

And that change has nothing to do with appearance.

It has everything to do with performance.

As everybody knows, after he plodded through a historically bad rookie season guiding a historically bad San Francisco offense in 2005, it is now time for Smith in Year 2 of his development to step up and start performing like a No. 1-pick quarterback for a team that desperately needs him to show the skill and prowess at the controls that got him picked that high in the first place.

It's a lot to ask of a young man who turned 22 less than three months ago but already is preparing to be the NFL's youngest starting quarterback for the second consecutive season. But fair or not, this is what Smith signed up for when he got that $50 million contract last year, and it's the burden and responsibility that have been thrust upon him as the 49ers attempt to change the losing proclivity that has engulfed the franchise.

In that regard, things aren't much different for Smith than when he entered his first training camp a year ago.

"I don't think the expectations have changed for myself," he said. "But I still think I'm going to be a great player and I expect that of myself. Some people have different words for it, but that rookie year … I think, to an extent, people understand that you're young and you have to work on things and, obviously, as you move on and get older in your career, no longer do those things get said and you better start performing. There is that (expectation)."

The expectations for Smith in 2006? While, in a broad sense, they're the same as they were the day he was drafted – that is, to quickly develop into San Francisco's franchise quarterback of the present and future – there is a subtle difference in his second season, and Smith knows it.

"You do get a certain grace period," Smith said. "But eventually, you better start performing. That is the bottom line."

Smith's grace period certainly will carry well into this season, if necessary, but now the 49ers have a veteran quarterback behind him who has proven he can be a winner in the NFL, a guy who has even won a Super Bowl. It will not necessarily be Alex or else this season if Smith falls flat on his face, because Trent Dilfer is around as a fallback option.

But like just about everybody in the organization, Dilfer knows how important it is for Smith to succeed if the 49ers are ultimately going to succeed. Dilfer knows his place, and – in the twilight of his career – he's here to help Smith, not challenge him for the starting role.

So Smith still has something of a comfort zone to work within, and he's much more at ease with his surroundings both on the field and off.

It was practically impossible for Smith to get cozy last season, when he basically was thrown to the NFL wolves after it became clear four games into the season that the 49ers weren't going anywhere with Tim Rattay at the QB helm. Smith struggled mightily, missed five games with a knee injury, then bounced back and showed some glimmers of promise when he guided the Niners to a two-game winning streak to end the season – and to carry into this season.

Still, his final numbers were some of the worst ever produced by a No. 1 pick who saw extensive action during his rookie season. Smith completed only 50.9 percent of his 165 passes, threw only one touchdown pass against 11 interceptions, was sacked 29 times and had a dismal quarterback rating of 40.8. His 875 yards passing were the fewest ever to lead the 49ers in the team's 60-year history.

Looking back on his tumultuous rookie season, Smith said, "It was kind of a whirlwind for me to go through that. It was kind of a life-changing experience. I was scrambling to learn the offense, scrambling to learn guys on the team. I (didn't) know what's camp's like. There's so many unknowns and uncertainties. It's kind of a confusing time a little bit.

"It's much different now. Now it's just so refreshing just to kind of be out here and just kind of get into football. I've been through it once. I know what camp's like. I know guys on the team. I know the facility. I know the area. Little things like that can make a difference, and make it easier to just kind of focus and makes it fun to be back out here and do football, and I can just get on the field and play and not worry about other things."

But, while he has looked smoother and in better rhythm while running the offense during the first two days of training camp, Smith also has displayed the kind of hesitancy in the pocket and erratic throws that plagued him last year. He's a better quarterback, to be sure, but there still are some rough edges, and Smith threw several interceptions during 7-on-7 and team drills both Friday and Saturday.

Not that anyone seems concerned at this stage of the summer.

When asked Saturday if Smith's timing has been off a bit so far, coach Mike Nolan quickly responded, "I didn't think his timing was off when he threw the three touchdowns, with two being back-to-back."

About Smith's two-day collection of interceptions, Nolan said, "That's part of the process. One of the things that is real important, just like the defensive backs, I want him to challenge people now so they can get better. If you are cautious about everything and not throwing the ball in there, they won't know their limitations. I don't put a lot of stock in it."

But, while making the team's quarterback picture clear when he says "Alex is the guy. He is the quarterback," Nolan also makes it clear he expects the Alex Smith of 2006 to be better than the Alex Smith of 2005.

Make that, a whole lot better.

"My expectations are higher," Nolan said. "His should be higher. Our football team's are higher, of him. All of that applies that pressure on him. It's a different pressure than it was last year. He's got a year under his belt. He needs to take another step. (But) he's the starter. There's no gray area in that right now."

Just like there's no gray in all that facial hair now being exhibited by Smith, which should help put things in perspective. He's still in the embryonic stages of growing up as a NFL quarterback, and he hasn't lost any courage or faith after being beaten down by the bullies of the league last year.

"Alex is going to be fine," Nolan said. "Alex is pretty darn good for a second-year guy. The things that we took Alex for, I don't have questions about. It's just getting familiar with the offense. I don't see Alex backing down to anything. He might lose a battle, but he's not going to back down."


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