Victory hug: Smith off to good start with Harbaugh
Alex Smith found himself in a few precarious positions in his first regular-season game under Jim Harbaugh: throwing blocks, spinning and diving for a touchdown and getting a bear hug from the new San Francisco 49ers coach. And, believe it or not, even hearing a few cheers sent in his direction, too.
The bumps and bruises that still dotted Smith's body this week earned him high praise from teammates and coaches, which also has been a rare mark in his six previous NFL seasons. Even with the added aches and pains from a bruising win, another season-opening loss would have felt far worse for a guy who has felt plenty of grief since the Niners made him the No. 1 overall pick of the 2005 NFL draft.
“It's a lot better than 0-1," he said.
Smith showed the poise and polish of a veteran in San Francisco's 33-17 victory over Seattle last week, guiding the offense slowly but steadily and giving a glimpse of promise to a franchise long waiting for him to prove his worth.
While Harbaugh has emphatically embraced Smith this summer, the seventh-year veteran will need to lead the offense to a lot more than one touchdown before the 49ers faithful do the same. Smith entered last week’s opener with a 19-31 career record as San Francisco’s starting quarterback.
But winning will certainly help heal old wounds.
And after his performance against the Seahawks, Smith is certainly on the right track.
"I think Alex has been sort of victimized with the coaches in the past," left tackle Joe Staley said. "It's great to see the connection now and the belief from the players as well as the coaches."
Smith previously played for two defensive-minded head coaches in Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary who didn’t know much about handling quarterbacks. Smith has bounced from one offensive system to the next with the 49ers and now is playing for his seventh offensive coordinator in seven seasons.
But Harbaugh’s version of the West Coast offense appears to be a good fit for Smith’s skills, and he got off to a promising start in it against the Seahawks.
Smith’s 90.4 passer rating puts him in the middle of the NFL quarterback rankings after Week 1.
Smith threw for a modest 124 yards, but he completed 15 of 20 passes with no turnovers and was not sacked against the Seahawks. His 90.4 passer rating puts Smith in the middle of the NFL quarterback rankings after Week 1.
For all the anticipation surrounding Harbaugh's new offense, the play calling was rather conservative, with few passes down field and little imagination. And the 49ers were just 1 of 12 attempting to convert on third down, not to mention 1 of 5 in red-zone efficiency.
Smith certainly didn't dazzle.
“Obviously, red-zone efficiency, third-down efficiency weren’t very good,” Smith said. “We were down there quite a few times and could only punch it in the one time. We put ourselves in some holes. We were only throwing fr 124 yards. Obviously, I’d like to build upon that. I’d really like to get a little more production.”
What had Harbaugh hyped and players riled up on the sidelines was the gusto Smith showed in sacrificing his body to make plays, whipping the 49ers sideline into a frenzy more than once.
As the clock ticked down late in the first half, Smith rolled right, spun and dived into the end zone – taking a punishing hit from safety Kam Chancellor at the goal line – for a 1-yard TD run that gave San Francisco a commanding 16-0 halftime lead.
Smith hustled to the sidelines and Harbaugh pulled the quarterback into full embrace for a seconds-long bear hug, a gesture that already has become a symbol of San Francisco's young season.
Smith showed an ability to make plays with his feet and escape the pocket, elements that often have been missing from his game in the past. Smith rushed for 24 yards on five carries before kneeling down twice for 1-yard losses on the game’s final two plays. That is almost half of the 60 total rushing yards Smith finished with last season and the 51 he had the season before that.
"Alex is a tough guy," running back Frank Gore said. "I know he's going to give it his all when he's on the football field."
Gore should know.
On another play in the first half, Smith launched his body into a linebacker while blocking for Gore on a reverse. Smith also scrambled several other times, turning nothing into something, the kind of plays Harbaugh craves from his quarterback.
"I was really encouraged by that," Harbaugh said. "That was a point of emphasis during training camp, and to see him respond that way and do things that move the chains, get you closer to first downs and put you in more manageable situations as far as the down and distance is concerned, is something that is really positive."
After a week when quarterbacks around the league broke 300, 400 – and in the case of New England's Tom Brady, 500 – yards passing with ease, Smith will be expected to make more progress with the 49ers offense, starting Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys.
There also is constant pressure on him to perform.
Second-round pick Colin Kaepernick is waiting in the wings should Smith slip, something he has always done during an inconsistent 49ers career.
That's why Smith has fallen out of favor with many fans – some of whom have booed him on several occasions, including this preseason – after failing to lead San Francisco to the playoffs, a drought that extends back to 2002. The 49ers have yet to have a winning season during that span.
While beating the Cowboys won't change that perception immediately, it would be a major milestone for a team that started last season with five consecutive losses after entering the year as a consensus NFC West favorite.
"It's another step," Smith said. "It's a team that's outside our division and a team that's had a lot of success in the NFC coming in here. No question, it's a chance for us to potentially take that next step."
And a chance for Smith to take a step into a place he has rarely been: 2-0.
Coming off a promising 2006 season in which he became the first quarterback in 49ers history to play every offensive snap in a season, Smith led another San Francisco squad considered by many to be a NFC West favorite to a 2-0 start in 2007 with two narrow division victories.
Two weeks later, Smith ripped up his throwing shoulder while being sacked during a first-place showdown with Seattle, the beginning of a downward spiral that would become an eight-game San Francisco losing streak.
Smith would need multiple surgeries on the shoulder, including one that forced him to miss the entire 2008 season, a foreboding sign that his career with the 49ers was headed in the wrong direction.
Smith has been trying to turn the other way ever since. After one week with a new coach in a new season, both he and the 49ers are off to the right kind of start.