Mike Nolan’s benching of Alex Smith is a move he should have made before, but at least it now gives his quarterback a chance to have a good NFL career.
Earlier, Nolan had insisted that Smith’s separated shoulder hasn’t affected his throwing, but Smith admitted the obvious this week: He’s been in considerable pain and his shoulder and forearm injuries have seriously affected his accuracy.
That was obvious in Monday night’s game in Seattle. On the first play from scrimmage, Smith rolled out and threw downfield to Darrell Jackson. Though some wrote that the pass was underthrown, I looked at that play on tape and saw the same thing I’d seen at the time: The pass was dropped right over Jackson’s left shoulder and into his hands. It was a pass a legitimate pro receiver should have caught, but Jackson dropped it as he was hit by cornerback Marcus Trufant.
After that, Smith’s accuracy dropped precipitously. He was blitzed unmercifully by the Seahawks and the 49ers had no answer for that. He was pummelled, hurried and given no chance at all.
This has been a consistent story since Smith came back from his injury. He’d been stoic about it, insisting that his shoulder wasn’t hurting his performance, unwilling to use that as an excuse.
But enough is enough. It doesn’t make any difference to this year’s team if it loses with Smith or Trent Dilfer at quarterback, but it makes a huge difference to Smith’s future.
Smith is very tough mentally. He had to be to survive the physical and emotional pounding he took when he was made the starter early in his rookie season with a weak team around him.
Last year, he made good strides, learning the speed of the game and also learning under Norv Turner, oneof the very best offensive coordinators in the NFL, perhaps second only to Norm Chow.
But everything has fallen apart this season. The 49ers’ new coordinator, Jim Hostler, is learning on the job, so he’s been no help to Smith. The offensive line has deteriorated, for reasons I’ll explain in a future column. What seemed to be an upgrade in the receiving corps was more apparent than real. Jackson drops too many passes — now we know why Seattle was willing to trade him within the division — and the supposed deep threat, Ashley Lelie, can’t be depended on to run precise routes.
Smith has become the primary target for media and enraged fans. That goes with the territory, of course, because quarterbacks always get too much praise or too much criticism, but it’s particularly unfair when the quarterback is injured and doesn’t get support from his coach for playing hurt.
When I watched Smith in his first season, in practice and in games, I had two thoughts: 1) He doesn’t know what he’s doing out there because he’s had virtually no experience running a pro-type offense; and 2) He has the skills to do the job once he learns it.
He still has those skills, but he’s picked up some bad habits under the pressure he’s facing from blitzes, throwing hurriedly, without setting himself and following through properly.
And he’s been playing hurt. Finally, Nolan has admitted that and shut him down. There’s no point in jeopardizing Smith’s future to save a season that is irretrievably lost.
Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on www.GlennDickey.com. E-mail him at email@example.com.