49ers’ Smith looks better despite team’s 0-2 start
SANTA CLARA – Searching for consistent offensive rhythm most of the past decade, the San Francisco 49ers might finally be hitting their stride with quarterback Alex Smith.
The 49ers moved the ball at will during Monday night’s narrow loss to defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans, assembling four drives of 80 yards or more to record their most productive offensive performance since 2004.
Leading the charge was Smith, the often-maligned former No. 1 draft pick who was booed by home fans early in the game but had them on their feet roaring at the end.
Smith made several big plays while directing a late scoring drive and then passed for a 2-point conversion that tied the score with just more than a minute to play. The Saints rallied in the final minute to pull out a 25-22 victory that kept the 49ers winless at 0-2.
Coach Mike Singletary, who joined the 49ers the same year the team selected Smith with the No. 1 overall pick of the 2005 draft, said that Smith “played his best game since he’s been here.”
Smith had a difficult time Wednesday agreeing with that assessment because of the game’s outcome. But there is little question his confidence is growing with the offense in what figures to be Smith’s make-or-break season with the franchise. The 26-year-old is in the final year of his contract and needs to help end San Francisco’s seven-year playoff drought to solidify his future with the team.
Monday’s game was significant progress for both Smith and the unit he directs. The 49ers rolled to 417 yards of offense, their highest output in 93 games.
“There’s a time and place when you need to take it a little more on your shoulders,” Smith said Wednesday. “When situations like that happen, I was willing to hold on to the ball a little more and run around and try and make plays.”
The 49ers need more of that from Smith, who so far has been more of a game manager than playmaker in his six NFL seasons.
But against the Saints, Smith efficiently worked the short passing game and burned New Orleans with several deep throws. He was superb in the clutch, guiding the 49ers 82 yards in 53 seconds to the tying touchdown with 1:19 to play.
On that drive, Smith hurt the Saints with both his arm and legs, a seldom-seen element of his game. Smith twice broke away for 12-yard scrambles and finished with 28 yards rushing.
“Alex has a great understanding of what we’re doing, and as he continues to grow and understand he’s going to continue to get better and make plays,” Singletary said. “That was good to see (Monday), but in order for us to be successful, Alex just has to continue to mature and play within himself.”
Smith also was much better beating the play clock than the 49ers were during their error-filled 31-6 loss at Seattle in their season opener. San Francisco experienced multiple communication problems in relaying play calls to Smith during that game, but those problems vanished against the Saints.
Smith had a list of 180 plays affixed to his wrist Monday, and he said that helped everything run more smoothly.
Smith wasn’t sacked in a game for the first time since last November, and an offensive line featuring two rookies and two replacement starters helped pave the way for Frank Gore to rush for 112 yards and set a franchise record with 21 career 100-yard games.
The only thing that really stopped the 49ers was themselves. They had four crucial turnovers, including three inside the New Orleans 27-yard line.
Smith threw for 275 yards, the fifth-best total in his 42 career starts. He also moved the chains as the 49ers produced 24 first downs and converted 56 percent of their third-down opportunities, their best showing in a game since 2007.
It’s something to build on this week as the 49ers prepare for another tough challenge against the undefeated Kansas City Chiefs at noisy Arrowhead Stadium, where San Francisco hasn’t won since 1982.
“We were very effective and efficient on offense besides the turnovers, and those aren’t little things,” Smith said. “But I felt really good out there, and you need to take the encouraging things and build on them. You take the good things we did from this last week, you learn from the other stuff and you move on.”