Smith has WR options around him like never before
The 49ers’ passing game was one big question mark at this time in 2011, but a year later the team is finding a lot of early answers during the first full-squad workouts of the offseason. Quarterback Alex Smith is taking charge of the offense like never before during organized team activity workouts, and he has found to his liking a new smorgasbord of wide receivers filling the passing lanes.
Smith looked one way, then another, finding open receivers with such ease that the toughest part might've been deciding whose turn it was in the rotation.
Smith's new choices at wide receiver – veterans Randy Moss and Mario Manningham and first-round draft pick A.J. Jenkins – zipped all over the field during an OTA practice session this week, giving the eighth-year quarterback options he never had last season.
''It's like waking up on Christmas,'' Smith said. ''You have a lot of new toys out there, new presents.''
New expectations, too.
A year ago, the unproven 49ers quarterback was organizing informal offseason workouts at San Jose State during the NFL lockout – dubbed ''Camp Alex'' by teammates – and not even certain to be the starter.
That was then. This is now. Smith contributed to San Francisco’s surprising turnaround season last year with the best season of his career, playing every significant snap and leading the Niners to their first NFC West championship since 2002.
Now, coming off a 13-3 regular season and an overtime loss away from the Super Bowl, the 49ers have loaded up on skill players around Smith to add more weapons to their offense.
Now, he also has a full offseason schedule to integrate the offense, something none of the 49ers had last year with the lockout.
''Alex has really been, in the two days out here, has been spreading the ball very well,'' coach Jim Harbaugh said Wednesday, the midpoint of three days of OTA sessions. ''He's got a lot of options. That's been evident, too, for two days. ''
Often outplayed and overshadowed by the NFL's best defense, Smith and the 49ers offense became an easy target for San Francisco's shortcomings in a 2011 season when the team didn’t have many.
Smith ranked 19th in the NFL with a career-high 3,144 yards passing and struggled to find wide receivers in a 20-17 overtime loss in the NFC title game to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants.
One thing the 2005 No. 1 overall pick out of Utah no longer seems to lack: confidence.
''This is the honest truth: I could absolutely care less on yards per game,'' Smith said. ''I think that is a totally overblown stat because if you're losing games in the second half, guess what? You're like the Carolina Panthers and you're going no-huddle the entire second half and, yeah, Cam Newton threw for a lot of 300-yard games. That's great. You're not winning, though.''
Newton, the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year, ranked 10th in the league with 4,051 yards passing last season. The Panthers finished with a 6-10 record.
From boos to a breakout season, not much else has really changed with Smith's status in San Francisco.
The 49ers flirted with free agent Peyton Manning – who ultimately chose Denver – until settling on Smith with a three-year, $24 million deal. Newcomer veteran Josh Johnson and 2011 second-round pick Colin Kaepernick also there, along with Scott Tolzien, the team’s young No. 3 QB last season.
General manager Trent Baalke also signed former Giants receiver Manningham, drafted Jenkins out of Illinois and speedster LaMichael James of Oregon in the second round.
But no move made more splashes than signing the 35-year-old Moss to a one-year deal.
Moss again declined to talk to reporters but has been Smith's No. 1 target during the open portions of practice and, by all 49ers accounts, he has dazzled.
''It's neat to watch our players watch a guy like Randy that they've watched growing up,'' Harbaugh said. ''And we have two fields. The defensive field's on the far right and then the offensive field is over here on the left. And I can always see the defensive players will be looking over.''
To say the least, Harbaugh has been impressed so far by Moss, who has been known to go his own way previously in his illustrious but sometimes enigmatic career.
“Randy’s a great target,” Harbaugh said. “He’s not a B.S.-er. He’s rock solid. He’s one of the fasted guys on our team when you put the watch on certain drills. We just couldn’t be happier with him. Couldn’t be any more happy with him.”
Said Smith: ''The first day, it was surreal out there throwing balls to him. The physical skills everybody knows. The thing you appreciate a lot is the guy's a true pro. He's played a lot of football. He's incredibly smart out there.''
All the more reason the 49ers offense needs to make strides.
Smith showed incredible efficiency last season, tossing 17 touchdown passes to only five interceptions, and led two late touchdown drives in San Francisco's thrilling 36-32 division round playoff victory over Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints.
The problem that had been there all season – often masked in victories where the 49ers could build a lead, run the ball late and lean on their defense – was the team’s inconsistent passing game. San Francisco finished 29th in the NFL in passing offense last season.
Stuck in long third downs all season, Smith relied so much on Vernon Davis and the other tight ends or running backs. The wide receiver corps disappeared in key sequences, most noticeably the NFC title game, when Crabtree’s one catch for three yards was the only reception by a San Francisco wideout.
''We were so inconsistent when we had to throw the football,'' he said. ''Third-and-mediums, third-and-longs, we weren't very good. Red zone, we weren't good at times. We got to get better there.''
“With plenty of inviting new targets at his disposal, Smith and the Niners are off to a good start.