Smith appeared in nine games last season as a rookie, and although he was directing an offense that simply did not have enough talent to compete, he was only able to manage a weak 40.8 passer rating. He threw just one touchdown pass against 11 interceptions, and folks in the City by the Bay were wondering if they made the right decision drafting him No. 1 overall in April 2005. After all, 49ers fans are used to the likes of Joe Montana and Steve Young, Hall-of-Famers sporting Super Bowl rings.
Through six games in 2006, Smith has been a bright spot on an offense that has exceeded expecations so far. They are still middle-of-the-pack statistically in terms of total offense and scoring points, but that is a remarkable improvement from last year's output. Just a season ago, a franchise that had long been known as an offensive juggernaut slipped to 30th in the league in scoring and dead last in total offense.
Smith and the 49ers had success against the Bears in the first preseason contest, but unlike Chicago, San Francisco appeared to actually do some game-planning ahead of that matchup.
"To an extent, yeah," Smith agreed. "I think we pieced some different things together that first preseason game to kind of get a feel for what we were planning on doing a little bit throughout the season. Obviously with the Bears defense, it was a good test for us. We were just trying to see different things, I think, (and) get a feel for the things we might be doing well."
Smith knows that preseason success in not always indicative of regular season success, but he feels he has a base of knowledge to draw from when facing the 6-0 Bears.
"You can see on film," he said. "It's tough to base it off preseason games I think. A little bit's true, obviously. They're still going to run their schemes. They're still going to do their things, but it's not quite the same obviously. You don't have the same gameplans. You obviously have preseason games that don't mean quite as much. So to an extent, but obviously looking from film at this point of the season, you can kind of get a good feel through the games they've played already. To get a feel for the things they do well, the things they are trying to accomplish on defense. There's still a difference between preseason and regular season."
Football insiders talk about the game slowing down for NFL quarterbacks once they get some experience under their belts, and Smith certainly sees that as a part of his development.
"Definitely," he said. "It's a combination of them slowing down and me playing faster. Whatever way you look at it, one of those has to happen. And I think for me last year, it's just one of those things of thinking way too much. When I'm thinking too much, I'm actually playing slower, so it looks like everyone else is playing faster."
Although there are many factors that have attributed to Smith's maturation in his second season, there is no substitute for good ole fashioned repititions.
"There's a lot," he said. "One is just a year's time. To be in this league a year is a big deal. I came from a college, the three years, came from a pretty unique system. Never really been under center in a pro-style system. So that was new. Obviously you're in the NFL now and given different looks, playing different defenses every week. There are a lot better players obviously at each position. A lot of things go into it. And then, just the year's time. I got the offseason to really kind of put this offense in with (offensive coordinator Norv) Turner. There's a lot of new faces around here making things easy on me. I think a lot of things are going into this year."
Any quarterback that enters this league as a first-round draft pick - let alone the No. 1 overall selection - is going to face an incredible amount of pressure. In San Francisco, that pressure is even greater. Playing QB in that town is the equivalent of playing centerfield for the New York Yankees considering the Mt. Rushmore of signal-callers that were there before him.
Smith is not trying to be Montana or Young, but the expectations of the fans can be overwhelming for a young QB.
"It was frustrating at times," he admitted. "At first, you don't really know what you're getting into. You're just kind of excited to be where you are. A chance to play at the NFL level, it's something all of us probably dreamed about. You don't really realize what you get into at first."
He took his fair share of bumps and bruises last season, but Smith believes he's a better quarterback now than he would be if he had just sat and watched from the sideline.
"I think it really accelerated my learning curve," he said. "Going through those things last year. Having to learn quickly. Having to learn fast. Playing early."
It remains to be seen if that experience will translate into success against a Bears defense that presents arguably his toughest challenge to date.