Smith growing by the week

The new-and-improved Alex Smith is what the 49ers thought they were getting all along last year when they committed their future to a 20-year-old kid with two seasons of starting experience at a mid-major college. But not even the Niners thought they'd be getting this much, this fast, this soon. Smith has grown into a legitimate NFL starting QB, displaying new dimensions practically every week.

He might not be the total package just yet, but he sure is showing the necessary signs that he's getting there.

"Alex Smith is a great player, and he's going to continue to grow and gain confidence in himself and the offense," said Philadelphia veteran Donovan McNabb, a five-time Pro Bowler who is setting the standard for NFL quarterbacks so far in 2006. "He's playing with a lot of confidence and good things can happen for him there."

They already are. Smith has firmly established himself among the upper half of NFL quarterbacks in the league's passer ratings this year after finishing his dismal rookie season with a rating of 40.8, one of the worst ever for a rookie quarterback selected with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft.

But Smith continues to put that season of struggles in his rear-view mirror. The deer-in-the-headlights rookie of 2005 has developed into a tough, poised and even stoic NFL sophomore who has emerged as a playmaker and team leader.

Entering Sunday's game against the San Diego Chargers and their top-ranked defense, Smith ranks 13th among the NFL's leading quarterbacks with a passer rating of 85.2, and he already has thrown for 1,071 yards and six touchdowns in five games - 196 yards and five touchdowns more than he recorded during his entire rocky rookie year.

Smith gave a glimpse of his toughness during San Francisco's September loss to McNabb's Eagles, when the 49ers fell behind by a wide margin in the second half and Philadelphia defenders peeled back their ears and came after him relentlessly.

Smith was punished throughout the fourth quarter, absorbing some frightening blind-side shots from a defense that ranks among the NFL leaders in sacks. But every time, he jumped right back up and came right back at the Eagles, standing up to the pressure while attempting to rally the 49ers to the finish.

In talking about the few positives he observed in that 38-24 defeat, coach Mike Nolan said, "We've got a tough quarterback. I don't know if there are too many guys in the league who could take that kind of beating and keep coming back. Alex hung in there the entire game after taking some pretty good shots."

Smith also showed strength in staying on his feet while being harassed by defenders, and gave a glimpse of his athleticism while breaking away for a 22-yard run on third down that's the longest of his career to this point. He had a career-high 39 yards rushing, another dimension in Smith's game that is gradually climbing to the surface.

Smith rushed for 631 yards and 10 touchdowns during his junior season at the University of Utah, but that mobility and athleticism wasn't evident during his NFL debut the next season. Now those qualities are becoming a regular part of his game.

Smith has displayed deftness in the pocket to avoid pressure, step away from defenders and keep plays alive. He was sacked just eight times in San Francisco's first five games, with several of them coming late in games in which the 49ers were behind and opponents knew Smith would be dropping back to pass.

"With Alex, my thought is that he was a guy who would not move around a lot, but he has done a terrific job of avoiding pressure," Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer said. "I just had a sense that he was a pocket passer, but now I don't see him that way. He's certainly more than that. I see him as a guy who can move outside the rush and buy himself extra time and find the open guy. He uses the rollout, and the bootlegs, and he throws very effectively on the move."

But while the physical tools that got Smith drafted No. 1 are coming to the forefront, it's the mental aspect of the game where Smith has perhaps made his biggest strides.

He's cool and composed in the pocket, waiting for receivers to come open instead of forcing balls into coverage, as he often did last year when he had 11 interceptions and just one touchdown throw in 165 passing attempts.

This year, Smith didn't throw his first interception until San Francisco's fourth game, which ended a streak of 139 consecutive passes without a pick, the fourth-longest in 49ers history.

Smith's ability to read defenses has quickly become a strength, which has led to great improvement in Smith's accuracy and completion percentage, even though the 49ers regularly take their shots down the field each week to take advantage of Smith's improved ability to throw long.

"There's something about coming in and actually playing and reacting," Smith said. "I really want to get into the decision-making process, be smart with the ball and don't take chances with the throws I'm making. There were times last year when I was guessing too much and playing it too fast before the snap instead of just playing the play and reacting to things.

"There were times last year when you're always kind of doubting yourself, in a sense. Now that I'm out there actually playing and reacting, you can kind of go full bore. You're not thinking about anything, you're not playing tentatively. You're just going."

And the San Francisco offense - which ranked fourth in the league entering October and now stands 13th - is going somewhere with Smith at the controls after finishing dead last in the NFL rankings last season.

So is the entire team, for that matter. After a difficult loss in Kansas City to begin October, Nolan decided to have his players vote for team captains to represent the 49ers for the remainder of the season instead of coaches selecting game captains on a weekly basis, as had been the team's practice in the past.

Smith, the youngest starting quarterback in the NFL and still one of the youngest players on the team at age 22, was the leading vote-getter among all 49ers.

Pretty much like he has handled himself since the day he arrived with the team, Smith talked in even tones about that accomplishment, while at the same time saying it really doesn't mean anything unless he continues to produce and earn respect on the field. What really matters, Smith said, is how he and the team continue to grow and move forward as a collective unit.

"You know what? I don't think a title really makes leadership," Smith said. "I think leadership is something that is earned, and it's really more of a respect (thing) than all of a sudden you just get a title. That really doesn't mean anything. It's a big honor to be voted by your teammates, your peers, but it's a big responsibility as well.

"You lead by example. I've never been a huge rah-rah guy who says a lot and is outspoken. I just try to speak with my play, in a sense."

Smith's play is speaking volumes, and the rest of the NFL can't help but listen. Labeled by some as a potential bust after his shaky debut last year, Smith now is quickly gaining acclaim as one of the most promising young quarterbacks in the league.

Which is how the 49ers have viewed him since the day he became one of them.

"Alex, as we knew when we drafted him and have said all along, has the things that with maturity will come out more and more," Nolan said. "That's all aside from the fact that he's also performing well now.

"If you're working on an identity, you want the quarterback to have the intangibles, some of the qualities that you want your football team to look like. Alex is that guy. He's carrying himself more maturely than he did a year ago and doing the things you expect a confident quarterback to do. There are a number of things that show he's moving in the right direction."

And as Smith and the 49ers move into the heart of their season, that number seems to grow on a weekly basis.

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