San Francisco 49ers: What Alex Smith Needs to Show Against Oakland

Owen Clark@@OwenDClarkCorrespondent IIIAugust 18, 2011

San Francisco 49ers: What Alex Smith Needs to Show Against Oakland

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    Alex Smith’s first game in the new and improved 49ers offense was a throwback, featuring all the same maddening mistakes that we’ve come to know and hate over the course of Smith’s star-crossed career.

    Those still on the Alex Smith bandwagon, which has been less lonely this offseason with Jim Harbaugh driving, will say Smith’s poor showing in New Orleans was a meaningless preseason game, against a brutal blitzing defense with a newly installed offense.

    In short, there is no cause for alarm.

    Unfortunately this optimistically narrow view ignores the six years, 50-plus games and few hundred practices Smith has had to improve the fundamental flaws that were on display Friday in the Big Easy.

    In short, there is plenty of reason to be alarmed by his awful first performance.

    I understand Alex isn’t going to reverse his negative career arc overnight, but starting this Saturday against Oakland he needs to show he has the potential to start trending upward, or the 49ers need to cut their losses and dump him like a bad stock.

    Here are four things we need to see from Smith on Saturday.

Passing from the Pocket

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    If there is a quintessential Alex Smith play, it is: drop back, pause, shuffle the feet, panic, put his head down, then heave a pass in the general direction of the receiver as he is being crushed by a defender. 

    Smith’s act is a little easier to understand when the Saints are bringing two free rushers on every play—dynamite game-planning by Harbaugh and Roman, by the way—but even when he has time to throw, Smith still does his happy-feet routine before getting rid of the ball.

    Whether it’s a lack of fundamentals, a fear of being hit or a fundamental flaw in his quarterback character, Smith needs to show he can take a three-step drop and deliver consistently from the pocket.

    Against an Oakland defense that hopefully won’t come out like they’re playing NFL Blitz, Smith needs to bust out a few well-timed slant patterns to show he has a prayer of running the West Coast offense.   

Find Some Touch

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    Smith’s passing skills are about as subtle as the Situation’s sexual advances. They lack finesse and any regard for the needs of the other party involved.  

    Whether it’s a 30-yard seam or a two-yard swing pass, Smith throws as has hard as he can and in a straight line.

    That’s great if you’re trying to thread it into Vernon Davis in front of the safety, but when you’re dumping it off to Frank Gore in the flat, or hitting Michel Crabtree on a short square-in, laser-rocket throws are unnecessary and result in tipped balls that are picked off.

    The rub is when Smith tries to dial down the speed, his accuracy goes with it. He’s like a pitcher who can throw 90 mph strikes, but airmails it over the first baseman when he tries to field a come-backer.

    The perfect example of this was in the opener last season vs. Seattle, when on 4th-and-goal from the 1-yard-line Smith gave a perfect play-action, only to loft a 5-yard fade past the fingers of a wide open Moran Norris.

    Granted, Moran isn’t Larry Fitzgerald, but it’s a pass an average NFL QB should be able to make after a round of tequila shots.

    Smith needs to show he can add a changeup to go with his fastball or the 49ers will continue to strike out on offense.

Manage the Clock

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    Another classic Alex move is to not break the huddle until there are 10 seconds left on the play clock, run up to the line, gesturing widely for Vernon Davis to go somewhere else, then, as the clock ticks down and the opposing crowd goes wild, burn a timeout.

    You can blame this type of poor offensive execution on everyone from the coordinator to the offensive line, but at some point Alex needs to get a better understanding of how to manage an offense.

    He supposedly did a bang-up job running Camp Alex. It's time to take those organizational skills and get people in and out of the huddle.  

    Smith has shown he doesn’t have the skills to be a Manning-style prolific passer, but if he can’t even be an effective game manager, why is he the starting quarterback? 

Flashes of a Clutch Performer

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    What do Derek Anderson, Brett Favre and Jimmy Clausen have in common? They were the only QBs to score lower than Alex Smith in ESPN’s new Total Quarterback Ratings (QBR) for 2010.

    QBR is ESPN’s self-described “uber-stat” which, unlike traditional passer-rating, gives extra credit to QBs who come through in the clutch and produce victories.

    With that in mind it shouldn’t be surprising that Smith finished near the bottom of the QBR totem poll; he was above three guys who were promptly replaced when the season ended.

    Minus his signature naked-bootleg game against Seattle in 2006, I'm not sure you can categorize a single performance in Smith’s career as “clutch.”

    Conversely, he seems to have a special knack for delivering a back-breaking interception or demoralizing three-and-out at exactly the wrong time to produce a victory.

    Of all Smith’s necessary improvements, redefining his image as a serial loser is the most daunting and the toughest to improve on in the preseason, but Saturday I’d settle for a few solid third-down conversions and a 10-play scoring drive as a sign he’s on the right track.

    Smith has a mountain of past mistakes to overcome on his trek to respectability and no one should expect him to morph into 1987 Joe Montana overnight, but it’s neither knee jerk nor unreasonable to ask him to stop making the same mistakes over and over again and show he’s capable of making the climb towards an effective NFL starter.