Liotta: A Niners turnaround rests on the shoulders of Smith

In a few hours, quarterback Alex Smith will begin to loosen up for this afternoon’s 49ers game against the Seahawks at Qwest Field in Seattle.

Off to his left he’ll see Michael Crabtree doing sprints. Vernon Davis will be near the sideline playing catch. Frank Gore will be stretching near midfield.

And Smith will be reminded once again that this 49ers offense has the potential to be explosive. The 49ers have the potential to do a lot of things this year.

And everybody has decided that the responsibility for delivering that potential belongs to Smith.

Can Smith execute what offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye has down on paper, make the right decisions, eat the football when he has to, and keep from making the big mistake?

Here’s where it comes down to some things out of Smith’s control, because the answers to those questions depend upon how much time Smith has. And that will be determined by an offensive line with a pair of rookies — tackle Anthony Davis and guard Mike Iupati, the ninth and 17th overall picks of the 2010 NFL draft, respectively.

“Now is not the time to ask if they’re ready,” Niners coach Mike Singletary said earlier this week. “It’s on now.”

When an NFL team chooses two of the first four offensive lineman in one draft, it means that team sees a need, and what the 49ers need is for Smith to have enough time to be a good quarterback. Like I said, in 2010, it always comes back to Smith.

For a quarterback, fractions of seconds make the difference between the best in the game and being washed up. It’s the same for Tom Brady or Peyton Manning. Even they look mortal without enough time.

If Smith has the time to get the football to Crabtree or Davis, look out. If Smith can involve Josh Morgan, Ted Ginn Jr. and Brian Westbrook, big things are possible.

That’s the 49ers motto this season: If Smith can …

While a million questions remain unanswered, the Niners lost four games last year by four points or less, and another by six on their way to an 8-8 record. They were close last year. They’re closer this year.

This will be a year the 49ers either break the hearts of their faithful, or they carry them on a wonderful ride into the playoffs. The team hasn’t been relevant since 2002, and it has been five years of bona fide rebuilding.

“Are we ready to go and play to the level that we are capable of playing at? That’s a good question,” Singletary said. “A question that I believe the answer is yes, but after the first game, after the first few games, I will know whether it’s an emphatic yes.”

Now is the time. This is the year. If Smith can.

Tim Liotta is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to The Examiner. E-mail him at tliotta@sfexaminer.com.

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