Although the 49ers will have competition at quarterback, new offensive coordinator Mike Martz would like Alex Smith to start.
"The first thing you look for in a quarterback is accuracy," Martz said when we talked in his office this week, "the ability to hit a moving target consistently. Alex has that ability."
Smith has also had poor protection, inadequate receivers and four coordinators in four years.
"You wouldn’t wish that on any quarterback," Martz noted.
As a result, Smith has developed bad mechanics, which Martz realizes.
"That happens to a lot of quarterbacks," he said. "We’ll have to break him down and start at ground zero."
The good news for Smith is that Martz runs the same system that Norv Turner did as a coordinator — it derives from the system Don Coryell brought to the San Diego Chargers in the mid-’70s — and Smith played well in his second season, when Turner was the coordinator.
Shaun Hill had a nice run for the 49ers at the end of last season, mostly hitting on short passes, and he’ll be Smith’s primary competition.
"By the time he got in there, teams knew the 49ers were not going to score many points, so defenses concentrated on keeping everything in front of them," Martz said. "That’s much different than the way they played Alex earlier in the year."
Martz also advised the 49ers to sign J.T. O’Sullivan, a former UC Davis quarterback who will also be in the mix. Trent Dilfer is expected to retire or be released.
"I had seen him and thought he could play in the NFL, so I brought him in at Detroit last year," Martz said of O’Sullivan. "He wound up being our No. 2 quarterback."
The receiving corps has been bolstered by the free-agent acquisition of Isaac Bruce, who starred when Martz was in St. Louis. Though it’s been assumed that Martz was responsible for that signing, he said he had a minimal influence on the decision.
"I had told the front office that I thought the Rams would release him, butthat’s all," he said. "I was in San Diego [when free agency opened] and they were trying to reach me, but I had lost my cell phone and was out of touch. By the time I realized my phone was in my car, they’d already made the decision."
The 49ers will look for receivers in the draft, but Martz thinks the answer may be on the club’s roster now, because he thinks the current receivers will thrive in his system.
"We try to make players understand why we’re doing something, instead of just doing it by rote," he said. "When they understand why, it frees them up to take advantage of their skills."
Specifically, he thinks Arnaz Battle is a much underrated receiver who will do better in his system.
"When he understands exactly what he’s doing, I think you’ll see more speed from him," Martz said.
Tight end Vernon Davis is another receiver he thinks has been underutilized.
"I just think there were so many problems here, they never got down to him," he said.
There are still a lot of questions, but there’s one certainty: The 49ers will be much more exciting with Martz.
"Usually, when things go wrong, coaches go conservative," he said. "I’m just the opposite. When things go wrong, I attack. Bombs away!"
And Alex Smith will be throwing those bombs.