Dickey: 49ers’ playoff chances rest on Smith

For the 49ers to make the playoffs this season, quarterback Alex Smith must make a big stride forward. He’s confident he can.

“I just feel so much more sure of what I’m doing,” he said after a practice at the 49ers’ Santa Clara facility. “Now, when I go back to pass and my first receiver is covered, I know to go to my second receiver — or third. I don’t try to force the ball. I know what my receivers can do and who I should look for on a particular play.”

Smith’s body language on the practice field reflects that. He takes command in the huddle and he has that swagger that top quarterbacks have when he comes to the line of scrimmage.

“He’s gained the respect of his teammates,” coach Mike Nolan said.

Both Nolan and personnel chief Scot McCloughan said they were looking for mental toughness when they drafted Smith — and that’s what they got. Smith had a rookie season that was as bad as it gets, throwing 11 interceptions with just one touchdown and a passer rating of 40.8. Yet he never complained, never made excuses. Now, looking back, he admits, “There were guys I didn’t feel very comfortable throwing to.” But he never said that at the time.

He also never used his lack of experience as a crutch. He had played only one year in high school, and mostly just handed the ball off to Reggie Bush, never a bad idea. The two years he played at Utah, he was in a spread offense.

“Just learning how to take the snap from center was an adventure that first year,” he said.

Last year, he made significant progress, reflected in his much improved statistics — 16 touchdowns, 16 interceptions and a 74.8 passing rating.

That’s still below the level he has to reach to make the Niners contenders, but there were flashes — the fourth quarter against Seattle and the game that knocked the Denver Broncos out of the playoffs — to suggest he can be much better.

The standard is high for 49ers quarterbacks, with both Joe Montana and Steve Young in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Too many 49ers fans compared Smith as a rookie to Montana, without realizing some significant differences in the way they started. When Montana came to the 49ers, he had played four years in a top-level program at Notre Dame. By the time he became the starter, he was 24 and the 49ers had a decent offensive team. Smith had only two college years in an unorthodox formation and was 21 when he stepped in for Tim Rattay, with a dreadful offensive unit.

Since then, the biggest improvement for the 49ers has been offensively. The offensive line is a strength, Frank Gore has become a terrific running back and the receiving corps has been greatly strengthened by the drafting of tight end Vernon Davis last year, a draft-day trade for Seattle wide receiver Darrell Jackson this year, the drafting of Washington State’s Jason Hill (a former Sacred Heart Cathedral High School star) and the free-agent signing of Ashley Lelie.

Smith now has the help he needs to succeed. He doesn’t have to reach the level of Montana and Young to make the 49ers contenders. He just needs to play on a consistently high plane, and I believe he’ll do that this year.

Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on www.GlennDickey.com. E-mail him at glenndickey@hotmail.com.

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