Despite Mike Singletary's oft-stated old school love affair with defense and the running game, I'm of the opinion that the season will ride on Smith's twice-repaired right shoulder. For this team to play a 17th - or heavens help us - an 18th game, the quarterback will have to evolve from caretaker to playmaker.
Singletary and offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye like to play up the running game, but it's a bit of a smokescreen. These guys aren't blind to the obvious. They're keenly aware that the NFL has become a passing league, even if they don't necessarily embrace that fact. They may cite the New York Jets and Baltimore Ravens as two examples of effective lunch pail, tough guy football, but those teams both spent first round picks on quarterbacks and considerable off-season resources on receivers as well. A good offense must run and pass and if they can only do one proficiently, then the latter is a better choice.
Thought they haven't admitted it outright, Raye has hinted numerous times that the reason the team was so conservative last year was because the coaches didn't trust the quarterback or the line to block for him. Yes, Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati were drafted, in part, to open up holes for Frank Gore and company, but if defenses insist on putting eight men in the box, I'd be very surprised to see the 49ers stubbornly trying to ram it up the gut again this season.
To that end this OTA was, in many ways, a passing camp. Sure, running plays were sprinkled in here and there, but for the most part Smith (as well as his backup David Carr and occasionally Nate Davis) were dropping back and letting it fly. What was most striking, particularly during these last two days, wasn't the number of pass plays called but the types of plays. The quarterbacks - Smith in particular, who got the lion's share of the reps - were really chucking it downfield, throwing a 20-yard seam route to Vernon Davis on one play, a 30-yard post to Josh Morgan the next, and a bomb to Dominique Zeigler on the one after that. Ironically, Smith showed more accuracy on the intermediate and deep stuff than on the checkdowns and dump-offs.
"I think Jimmy Raye knows that as Alex gets a better control of the offense, and as the offensive line continues to develop their protection packages, we can push the ball down the field a little bit more," said Singletary.
The control to which he referred is vital for multiple reasons, as Singletary would go on to explain. The more Smith feels comfortable with the offense, the more leadership and confidence he'll be able to show to the rest of his teammates and the more input and feedback he'll communicate with his coaches.
"That’s something that we talked about a number of times last year, being able to take control of the offense and being able to have a command of the huddle and have a command of what we’re doing," Singletary said. "I remember a conversation that I had with him last year, where he said 'Coach, in all honesty, everything that you want, I can give you. I know I can do it,' but he said, 'I just need a little continuity and I’m still trying to learn some of the things that we are doing. Once I get it, I promise you I will show you that I can take command of the offense. I will do all the things that you are looking for,'. We did have some continuity this off-season and it was very nice to see him step up and do exactly what he said he was going to do."
For the first time in his six-year career, Smith will have the same offensive coordinator for the second consecutive season. Finally, we'll get a chance to find out if Urban Meyer, his coach at the University of Utah, was right all along when he said back at the beginning of Smith's pro career with the 49ers that he'll never play well in his first year in any system, but once he gets some experience and really "gets his arms around the offense" he'll be the guy everyone expected him to be when he was drafted first overall in 2005.
Smith is off to a good start in proving his detractors wrong, but true validation will have to wait until September.
In other camp news, Smith and the other quarterbacks all had to deal with throwing to first and second year receivers and tight ends for most of Wednesday's practice as the league selected those position groups for random drug testing. All the incumbent 49ers had to partake. I don't know how much the job pays for these guys who collect these samples, but it can't be enough.
Singletary was complimentary of not just rookie receiver Kyle Williams (the 6th-round draft pick signed a four-year deal on Thursday), but of his entire draft class in general when speaking with reporters on Thursday afternoon, saying he's noticed the effort they've all made to improve their conditioning since the rookie camp three weeks ago and adding how impressed he was with their effort and dedication in the classroom as well.
"I think from the energy out here, the [lack] of mistakes, the way they respond in the classrooms, the preparation, these guys are smart," he said You’ve got [safety] Taylor Mays, [linebacker Navorro] Bowman, Williams, the two linemen that we brought in - those guys are on it. They aren’t just leaving here and going back and running around and watching TV. These guys are studying their playbooks, not just the guys that I named, but a number of those guys were impressive. The running back, the [Anthony] Dixon kid, they work hard and it’s a breath of fresh air."
Singletary added that it's been his favorite draft class so far, but again, it's only May.
On the other side of the coin, there was one negative about the camp besides all the absences of the defensive starters, and that was the punt return drill on Wednesday. Quite simply, it might have been the most horrid performance by a group of returners I've ever seen. In fact, none of the beat guys - people who've seen hundreds of more practices than I have - could recall anything quite like it.
Granted, it was a windy day, but nothing as dramatic as what we're all used to on fall Sundays at Candlestick Park. The Juggs machine was launching the ball seemingly a mile high in the air and the four returners; Ted Ginn, Williams, receiver Brandon Jones and rookie corner LeRoy Vann, collectively caught maybe 40 percent of the balls, and that's not an exaggeration. Heck, they maybe touched 60 percent of them.
While all the guys were poor, Ginn was again unquestionably the worst. His effort was frankly
lacking on the majority of his attempts and he showed little inclination to go after balls that weren't dropping within his 10-yard radius. If he does indeed want to be the punt returner here, which Ginn insisted he did when he had his introductory conference call with the local media, he sure hasn't shown it yet.
Eventually Singletary couldn't take what he was seeing anymore and called Ginn over for a private chat. The conversation remains between them, but for all the world it looked very one-sided and I strongly doubt the coach offered many "attaboy"s. Whatever was said, Ginn got the message and caught most of the punts the rest of the way. The group as a whole performed much better on the drill on Thursday, but it was a calm day and the trajectory of balls was a lot lower, more like kickoffs than punts I'd guess.
"Ball security is the number one thing," Singletary would say later. "I don’t care how fast [a returner] is. I don’t care how many guys he can make miss. If he can catch the ball, that’s step number one. Whatever comes after that, if we can get five yards, that’s fine, but just don’t drop the ball."
That seems to be the theme for the 2010 49ers. The division is their for the taking. They've got the best team on paper. They've got the right attitude. All they have to do is not drop the ball.