The 49ers put in an hour of solid work on the practice field Friday morning before dialing back to three-quarters speed. Quarterback Alex Smith looked pretty sharp during that short span, misfiring just once in his 11 throws during team period and 7-on-7.
Whether or not that comes as a relief to the Niners and Smith, it’s certainly a positive sign. As the team prepares for its first enemy action of 2010 – against the Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium at 10 a.m. (PST) tomorrow – Smith’s development in Jimmy Raye’s offensive system remains the most important issue facing the team.
Smith’s confidence and command of the offense was an oft-revisited theme during the offseason. But his progress came into question last Tuesday. That day, Smith had a morning he would just as soon forget, throwing numerous balls either behind his receivers or over their heads. He threw one interception (to Nate Clements) and nearly suffered a couple more. Another pass sailed so high over running back Frank Gore on a wheel route that it short-hopped a cameraman’s shin on the sideline.
That day, Raye set off what may have sounded like an alarm to many 49ers fans.
“He is arm-weary, probably,” the coordinator said. “We had him 94 throws in the morning – because we chart every throw that he makes. He’s had 94 throws in the morning and somewhere in the 86-90 throws in the afternoon. That’s a lot of balls in a consecutive period of time, so you are going to hit a wall, get a little arm-weary.”
The following afternoon, on Wednesday, Smith was mostly on-target but had some wobble on several passes – including one that Crabtree had to wait on in the end zone. The receiver wound up getting hit as he landed, and is currently out with a neck strain.
That day, head coach Mike Singletary was asked whether he felt the freshness of Smith’s arm was a concern.
“No,” Singletary replied, in a tone that seemed to indicate he wasn’t interested in exploring the topic further.
Smith, however, was willing to discuss it.
Asked Friday how his arm felt, the QB smiled and replied: “It feels good – camp arm. Compared to the last couple years though, not even close. I don’t have any more of the soreness or the aching that I had the last couple years, so it feels really good. For as many reps and throws as I’m getting, I’m happy with where I’m at.”
This is the first time in three years that Smith entered training camp without a shoulder injury in his immediate past. He separated his throwing shoulder in a September 2007 game and attempted to play through the pain, and wound up having surgery to repair three ligaments in the joint that December. The next year he broke a bone in the shoulder.
It makes sense that the more distance he puts between himself and those injuries, the better he is likely to feel.
“I think the more strength you get back, the more mobility you get back,” Smith said. “I don’t know, break down that scar tissue I guess. I don’t totally know the science behind it, but I do know that it’s getting better and better the more I get away from it.”
Smith said he doesn’t believe many NFL teams track passes the way Major League Baseball teams count pitches, and he appreciates the 49ers’ protectiveness. It’s a far cry from ’07, when then-coach Mike Nolan downplayed Smith’s injuries and made the quarterback sound like a malingerer.
Smith helps his own cause by icing the shoulder after practice and alternating between weightlifting and rest when he is able.
“And then the biggest thing, I think it’s just knowing your body, knowing your shoulder, being conscious of it, not pushing it too far, not doing stupid things with it,” he said. “I’m at the point now where I’m being vocal about it, where I’m like, ‘I’m good,’ or ‘I’ve had enough throws.’ If it comes to that point, just being ready to speak your mind.”
That would be another example of the new, confident Alex Smith, and the team should be happy to have him chime in. After all, with a good young defense, some playmakers on offense and a revamped offensive line, it seems clear that the 49ers will go as far as Smith’s right arm takes them in 2010.