Forget their last two exhibition games. The 49ers will be in the playoffs this season. The preseason MEANS NOTHING, folks. Have you all forgotten that the Raiders went 4-1 in these don’t-count games last year?
In the exhibition season, coaches look more at individuals than team results and there are two encouraging signs for the 49ers, the promotion of their two first-round draft choices (linebacker Patrick Willis and offensive right tackle Joe Staley) to starting roles.
Willis seems on the road to stardom because he is very fast with a good nose for the ball, yet plays under control, an essential trait in Mike Nolan’s system.
It is Staley, though, who will probably have the biggest immediate impact because he replaces Kwame Harris, who was too often a swinging door on pass plays.
Coaches don’t plan for exhibition games in the same way that they do in the regular season, so it’s difficult to judge a team’s progress. They use offensive and defensive schemes that are very limited, which should be a cautionary tale for Raiders fans who think the team’s offensive line is much-improved. Wait until you see how they hold up against blitzes in the regular season.
I’ve found it easier to evaluate a team by watching practices, because then I know what the coaches are working on. By any measure, this is an improved 49ers team over the one which finished 7-9 last season. In practice sessions, the confidence level of players has been high and the energy that has always manifested itself in practice since Nolan took over has remained.
Offseason acquisitions greatly improved the defense, especially at cornerback, where Nate Clements was brought in. That and a solid draft have added depth; for the first time under Nolan, the 49ers had to cut proven NFL players, such as wide receiver Bryan Gilmore.
Another reason not to worry about exhibition results: Frank Gore didn’t play a down. The 49ers will look much better with Gore in the lineup.
Smith continues to be under the microscope because the standard for 49ers quarterbacks is so high, with back-to-back Hall of Famers, Joe Montana and Steve Young, during the Super Bowl years.
Though he showed good improvement in his second season, Smith was not close to that level and there is no way yet to predict how high he will go. In his third year, he’s still only 23 and with remarkably little experience behind him. He played quarterback for only one year in high school, rarely throwing as many as 10 passes in a game for an offense featuring Reggie Bush, then two years in a spread offense at Utah. His time with the 49ers has been an extended learning experience.
Smith is a good athlete, able to scramble out of trouble and even run for yardage when he has to, and he can make all the throws. He has the mental toughness Nolan and personnel chief Scot McCloughan sought when they drafted him. He has gained the respect of his teammates and coaches and both Nolan and new offensive coordinator Jim Hostler have noted that he feels much more comfortable with the offense, which is basically the same offense Norv Turner installed last year.
Smith must make another big jump this year, but I’m confident he will, and that he’ll lead the 49ers back to the postseason.