SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Alex Smith looked one way, then another, finding open receivers with such ease that the toughest part might've been deciding whose turn it was in the rotation.
Smith's new choices at wide receiver — Randy Moss, Mario Manningham and first-round pick A.J. Jenkins — zipped all over the field during Wednesday's pad-free practice, giving the quarterback options he never had last season.
"It's like waking up on Christmas," Smith said. "You have a lot of new toys out there, new presents."
New expectations, too.
A year ago, the unproven San Francisco 49ers quarterback was organizing informal offseason workouts at San Jose State during the NFL lockout — dubbed "Camp Alex" by teammates — and not even certain to be the starter. Coming off a 13-3 regular season and an overtime loss away from the Super Bowl, the 49ers loaded up players around Smith.
Now he also has a full offseason schedule to integrate the offense.
"Alex has really been, in the two days out here, has been spreading the ball very well," coach Jim Harbaugh said. "He's got a lot of options. That's been evident, too, for two days. "
Often outplayed and overshadowed by the NFL's best defense, Smith and the 49ers offense became an easy target for San Francisco's shortcomings.
Smith ranked 19th in the NFL with a career-high 3,144 yards passing and struggled to find wide receivers in a 20-17 overtime loss in the NFC title game to the eventual champion New York Giants.
One thing the 2005 No. 1 overall pick out of Utah no longer seems to lack: confidence.
"This is the honest truth: I could absolutely care less on yards per game," Smith said. "I think that is a totally overblown stat because if you're losing games in the second half, guess what? You're like the Carolina Panthers and you're going no-huddle the entire second half and, yeah, Cam Newton threw for a lot of 300-yard games. That's great. You're not winning, though."
Newton, the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year, ranked 10th in the league with 4,051 yards passing last season. The Panthers finished with a 6-10 record.
From boos to a breakout season, not much else has really changed with Smith's status in San Francisco.
The 49ers flirted with free agent Peyton Manning — who ultimately chose Denver — until settling on Smith with a three-year deal that has some $16.5 million guaranteed. Josh Johnson and 2011 second-round pick Colin Kaepernick also there.
General manager Trent Baalke also signed former Giants receiver Manningham, drafted Jenkins out of Illinois and LaMichael James of Oregon. But no move made more splashes than signing the 35-year-old Moss to a one-year deal.
Moss again declined to talk to reporters but has been Smith's No. 1 target during the open portions of practice and, by all 49ers accounts, has dazzled.
"It's neat to watch our players watch a guy like Randy that they've watched growing up," Harbaugh said. "And we have two fields. The defensive field's on the far right and then the offensive field is over here on the left. And I can always see the defensive players will be looking over."
Said Smith: "The first day, it was surreal out there throwing balls to him. The physical skills everybody knows. The thing you appreciate a lot is the guy's a true pro. He's played a lot of football. He's incredibly smart out there."
All the more reason the 49ers offense needs to make strides.
Smith showed incredible efficiency last season, tossing 17 touchdown passes to only five interceptions, and led two late touchdown drives in San Francisco's thrilling 36-32 division round playoff victory over Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints.
The problem that had been there all season — often masked in victories where the 49ers could build a lead, run the ball late and lean on their defense.
Stuck in long third downs all season, Smith relied so much on Vernon Davis and the other tight ends or running backs.5 comments on this story
"We were so inconsistent when we had to throw the football," he said. "Third-and-mediums, third-and-longs, we weren't very good. Red zone, we weren't good at times. We got to get better there."
Notes: TE Delanie Walker fell to the ground in pain during one play, clutching his left knee. A team trainer wrapped Walker's knee and he was held out for the remainder of practice. Walker said he should be fine, but was going to get checked out by trainers. ... The 49ers signed three-time All-Pro punter Andy Lee to a six-year extension through the 2018 season.
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