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49ers Need More Jekyll, Less Hyde From Alex Smith

Chris Pisar |
October 7, 2010 | 3:20 p.m. PDT

Staff Writer

One week after Mike Singletary’s decision to fire second-year offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye, the fatal flaw in his effort to jump start a talent-laden 49er offense became evident: he got rid of the wrong guy.

Consider Sunday's game against the Falcons a moment of clarity for the Niners. It wasn’t the guy calling the plays who was the problem; it was the guy running them.

Alex Smith's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde routine has been the reason for San Francisco's poor start.

Smith was drafted in 2005 with the hope that he would man the quarterback position for years to come.

Now, in his sixth season, Smith has yet to develop into the franchise quarterback the 49ers brass thought he would be. It's no coincidence that there has been a different guy calling plays for the Red and Gold every season that Smith has been under center.

He has more turnovers than a pastry truck. Try 76 (50 interceptions and 26 fumbles) in just 47 games played. And he continues to make rookie mistakes even though he is five years removed from his freshman campaign.

While he has showed some improvement (see the end of the 2009 campaign), Smith's lack of maturity as a signal caller in pressure situations has him playing like Jekyll and Hyde on the field. The game against the Falcons was no exception.

It was a new week, a new offensive coordinator and a new outlook. But it was the same old Alex Smith.

On the 49ers’ first possession of the game, Smith led a methodical six-minute, 16-second, 88-yard drive that got all of San Francisco’s big guns involved.

A couple of handoffs to Frank Gore, a short pass to Michael Crabtree and an 11-yard touchdown pass to Vernon Davis later the 49ers were up 7-0.

That was Smith showing his good side: 5-5, 39 yards (not including the 34 yards they got on defensive pass interference) and a touchdown.

The Niners tacked on seven more points when backup receiver Dominique Zeigler blocked Atlanta punter Michael Koenen’s kick and Taylor Mays successfully caught the bouncing ball and got the tips of his toes down in the back of the end zone before falling out of bounds.

But three possessions after the 49ers first lit up the scoreboard, Smith’s bad side began to rear its ugly head.

Up 14-7 and driving in Falcon territory, the 49ers looked like they would be heading into the locker room with at least a 10-point lead.

But Smith had other plans.

On first-and-ten from the Atlanta 34 with less than two minutes to go in the half, Smith dropped back, felt the pressure, stepped up in the pocket and tried to hit Gore with a jump pass to his left. Only he overthrew Gore and the ball was tipped into the hands of Falcons linebacker Curtis Lofton for an interception.

Atlanta promptly drove down the field and cut the lead to 14-10 behind a 37-yard Matt Bryant field goal.

What looked like a guaranteed three points and a 17-7 lead for the 49ers turned into a six-point swing in favor of the Falcons.

Until that point, the 49ers had looked way better on offense than the week before (when they managed just 10 points and 251 total yards against the Chiefs). Key word "had."

The Niners got the ball to start the second half and right away they looked like the offense that drove the length of the field on their first possession of the game.

Then Smith, err Mr. Hyde, reared his ugly head again.

Driving across midfield, the 49ers were faced with a second and long situation. Smith took the snap, never looked off his receiver and threw a perfect strike to Falcons second-year safety William Moore a la Neil O’Donnell in Super Bowl XXX.

Next thing you know it's 14-13.

But Smith’s Sunday performance as Mr. Hyde wasn’t over.

With about 10 minutes left to play, San Francisco was putting together another solid drive.

Twelve plays into the drive, the Niners were at the Atlanta 35, well within kicker Joe Nedney’s range, and Smith did it again.

He took the snap. As the pressure came, he rolled to his right. He gets tackled by his shoestrings and, instead of taking the sack, heaves the ball forward with no receiver in sight. Thankfully for the Niners it wasn’t Smith’s fourth turnover of the day but it was intentional grounding. The loss of down and 10-yard penalty that followed killed any hope of a field goal.

Forcing a throw instead of taking the sack on a third-and-four in opponent territory just isn’t the best decision. Then again, that's what has become expected of Smith.

By game’s end, Smith’s gaffes had cost his team a chance at least nine points, which proved costly as the Falcons kicked a 43-yard game-winning field goal with two seconds remaining to beat the 49ers 16-14 and drop them to 0-4 on the season.

Going forward, the 49ers need more Dr. Jekyll and less Mr. Hyde from Smith. That means making throws that an NFL quarterback should make and managing the offense more efficiently.

Smith doesn’t need to be the second-coming of Joe Montana. He just needs to let the playmakers around him make the plays for him.

If he can do that and limit his turnovers, the Niners might get a win by the end of the year.

To reach writer Chris Pisar, click here.

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