If Martz can't fix Alex, nobody can

Mike Martz makes quarterbacks. He also cures quarterbacks. That's a wonderful thing for Alex Smith as he enters his make-or-break fourth season with the 49ers. While Smith hardly has lived up to the expectations of a No. 1 overall pick, a former NFL scout and draft expert who worked previously with Martz in St. Louis says Martz is just the guy to turn Smith into the QB the Niners need him to be.

It should first be pointed out that Russ Lande - a former scout with the Rams and Cleveland Browns who now is a draft expert for the Sporting News and the author of GM Jr's Guide to the NFL Draft - was very high on Smith before he came out as a junior in the 2005 draft.

And Lande, using a self-developed quarterback rating system, usually hits on his evaluations of quarterbacks. For instance, before the 2000 draft, Lande had Marc Bulger rated as a first-rounder. Bulger wasn't selected until the sixth round and later was released by two teams, but now he's one of the league's elite quarterbacks and a Pro Bowl MVP. Lande also had Tom Brady rated as a third-rounder in 2000. Brady was selected in the sixth round, and we all know what kind of QB that guy turned out to be. On those two quarterbacks, in particular, Lande was ahead of the NFL thinktank.

Before the 2005 draft, Lande said of Smith, "I loved him coming out. I gave him the second rating on the entire board. The kid has a lot of talent. He has all the intangibles. I don't think there's ever been a question about that."

Fast forward to 2008, and now there's a lot of questions. After a dismal rookie year was followed by a promising second season in 2006, last season was a disaster for both Smith and the 49ers. Smith suffered a separated shoulder on the third play of San Francisco's fourth game after leading the 49ers to a 2-1 start, and things would never be the same the rest of the year. He was rushed back from an injury that later required surgery and finished the year on injured reserve with a 57.2 passer rating after completing just 48.7 percent of his 193 passes.

This after compiling an outlandishly bad 40.8 passer rating as a rookie, which was followed by a vastly improved 74.8 rating in 2006, when Smith threw 16 touchdown passes with 16 interceptions.

"To me, so far, he has been a disappointment," Lande said. "I haven't seen consistently good decisions on the film - that's what bothers me the most about him. This is a guy you want to see make good decisions, and you would expect that he would because he's such an intelligent guy. I think his arm strength has been a disappointment and I haven't seen from him the ability to stick all the throws, and that has been my biggest concern."

But Lande isn't giving up on Smith, and he still thinks Smith - who won't even turn 24 until May - still can live up to his potential. In fact, Lande feels there's a good possibility that could happen this season, for one reason in particular.

"I think Martz can do a lot for this kid," Lande said. "Martz knows what it takes to not only develop their skills, but he takes a quarterback to the best possible level that they can play at. I think the first eight weeks of (the upcoming) season will be a learning process, but the second half you're going to see Alex Smith make it and really be the quarterback I thought he would be. I think he's going to turn into a good NFL quarterback under Mike Martz."

Lande also had an interesting observation regarding the fact that Martz is even in San Francisco to coach Smith.

"I don't think Mike would have taken that job unless he saw something he could develop in Alex," Lande said. "Mike Martz is a great coach. People (in San Francisco) need to know that. As far as developing quarterbacks, he's as good as it gets.

"I think that Mike probably looked at every snap Alex Smith has taken in his career before he even accepted the job. Because Mike is as thorough as they come, and he's not going to put his career on the line with a team unless there's a quarterback there that he thinks he can win with. For him to take that job in the first place says he must have seen something on film that said, 'He's got some of the tools that I can turn this kid around.'"

While not coming right out and committing to Smith as his starter this year - it already has been made clear, after all, by coach Mike Nolan and GM Scot McCloughan that Shaun Hill will be given a shot at the starting job in open competition with Smith this summer - Martz pretty much said as much about Smith when he was hired Jan. 8 as San Francisco's new offensive coordinator.

"Watching the tape, from what I've seen from Alex, it's exciting," Martz said then. "Alex, watching him through the year, is very impressive."

Martz might be seeing something there that others aren't right now, but that's sort of the point. Martz, after all, sees things in quarterbacks that others don't, and he has a special kind of relationship with them that goes beyond what others see on the surface.

Smith already appears to be enjoying and benefiting from his time around Martz. The 49ers began their spring workout program late last month, and while Smith is working back gradually into action as far as throwing the football goes, the wisdom of Martz's ways already seems to be rubbing off on him.

"Obviously, I'm really excited about (having Martz as his coordinator)," Smith said. "I'm excited about the opportunity. He's not only an offensive coordinator, but obviously a guy who understands quarterbacks as well, the fundamentals of the position. I'm just going to pick his brain and gain that knowledge. To have him coach us is a big opportunity."

Particularly for Smith. And it's an opportunity he can't let pass by. In fact, it may Smith's last chance to make it as a franchise quarterback with the 49ers.

As Lande says, summarizing the situation facing the 49ers, "If Martz does not make (Smith) a legitimate, good NFL quarterback, then he's never going to be a good quarterback."

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