What if last season was only the beginning?
That question ran through my mind while watching Smith fire passes on time and on target during a recent three-day stay at 49ers training camp. The answer became clearer every time Smith connected with newcomers Randy Moss and Mario Manningham, which was frequently. He appeared more accurate, more confident and more in command than I can ever recall seeing Smith during a training camp -- or any other time, for that matter.
"He's letting the ball go, he's making the right decisions and he's not afraid," tight end Vernon Davis said. "He's playing ball, he's having fun."
Of course, it figures a quarterback would look better throwing to proven targets than when operating without them. Michael Crabtree, Kyle Williams, Brett Swain and Joe Hastings were the only wideouts available to Smith in the NFC Championship Game last season. Williams, now fighting for a roster spot, ranked second among the 49ers' wide receivers with 20 catches during the regular season.
Life for Smith is better now.
"If you watch our team last year, we were kind of one-dimensional as far as offense," left tackle Joe Staley said. "The passing game went through Vernon and Crabtree. The running game was Frank [Gore] and Kendall [Hunter]. We've added a lot of talent. The more weapons you have, the more versatile you can be. Our coaches are very creative."
Smith proved last season he could be a trusted extension of the 49ers' coaching staff. He threw five interceptions in 445 pass attempts, playing to the team's strengths on defense and special teams.
Smith has what offensive coordinator Greg Roman calls a "unique" ability to grasp a game's dynamics in real time for the purposes of managing risks. On the surface, that sounds like a creative way to avoid slapping the dreaded "game manager" label on a quarterback with limited skills. The 49ers don't see it that way at all. They think Smith has demonstrated all the intangibles great quarterbacks should possess: mental and physical toughness; an off-the-charts football IQ; a level head no matter the circumstances; a passion for preparation; and the ability to perform in the clutch. They see him leading an offense that wasn't as bad as advertised, one that should only get better.
"Without an offseason here, we finished 10th in the NFL in scoring [actually 11th] and fourth in time of possession," Roman said. "That is in spite of being poor on third down, which is pretty remarkable.
"We're going to be opportunistic, strike when we feel it's time to strike," he said. "The other part of it is, when we make decisions on offense, it's big picture. The offense, defense and special teams are all intertwined. But we have an offseason under our belt now and are working through our second camp together. We certainly expect a lot of ourselves this year."
THREE HOT ISSUES
1. Crowded offensive backfield. Frank Gore is going to get his carries. Kendall Hunter, Brandon Jacobs and LaMichael James will be competing for what's left over. Their roles haven't solidified, but Hunter has enjoyed a tremendous camp. He caught my attention this week by hauling in a deep pass up the sideline, the type of play running backs rarely make. Hunter is going to play. James, as a rookie, figures to need time.
After collecting two Super Bowl rings in five seasons with Kevin Gilbride as his coordinator, Jacobs has been blown away by Roman's ability to showcase each player's individual strengths. That is a recurring theme among 49ers players.
"That is what this staff does the best," Jacobs said. "'G-Ro' is a genius, man. I've seen it, mainly these last couple days, we started doing some different things on offense, things out of different formations and basically putting the defense in sets he wants them to be in, versus what they want to be in."
Based on what he's seen, Jacobs said he thinks Gore would have six or seven Pro Bowl appearances by now, instead of three, had this 49ers staff been in place the whole time.
2. Role for Randy Moss. The passing game went through Crabtree and Davis last season. Both are in the primes of their careers. Neither figures to see his role diminish appreciably. With Manningham joining the mix and rookie first-round choice A.J. Jenkins lurking, a rotational role for Moss appears likely.
The sentiments Jacobs expressed regarding Roman and the 49ers' coaching staff could be important to keeping Moss from growing frustrated. Moss never has been one to suffer fools, even perceived ones, especially if the ball stopped coming his way. He did buy into "the New England way" when the Patriots' offensive staff was at its best and the team was winning. Moss also was catching balls left and right from an all-time great quarterback back then, circumstances the 49ers will not replicate.
The question then becomes whether Moss, 35 years old and coming off an idle season, will put team goals ahead of personal ones no matter what.
Davis, probably the most emotionally authentic player on the team, said he "loves" Moss for having "a great heart" and being a selfless teammate.
"Not only has he extended some knowledge to me, he has shown me that being great requires you to work even when you've had tons of success, with people saying you're a potential Hall of Famer, first ballot," Davis said of Moss.
3. Potential sophomore slump. Aldon Smith has incurred a DUI arrest, suffered stab wounds at a party and been carted off the Candlestick Park field with a preseason hip injury since setting a franchise rookie record with 14 sacks last season. That sounds like a sure-fire recipe for a sophomore slump.
Smith has been getting around slowly with the help of a forearm crutch. Hip injuries can be terribly painful. Athletes as lean as Smith have so little padding in that area. On the positive side, Smith has bounced back quickly from injuries in the past. He missed three games after suffering a cracked fibula during the 2010-11 season at Missouri.
The 49ers are asking Smith to transition from situational pass-rusher to full-time outside linebacker. Missed practice reps could slow that transition in the short term.
REASONS FOR OPTIMISM
The 49ers brought back all the important players from a team that finished 13-3 and reached the NFC Championship Game last season. They added weapons at receiver and running back after falling short offensively.
Both sides of the ball figure to benefit from a full offseason after scrambling to learn new schemes on the fly following the lockout.
The progress Davis showed late last season comes to mind as an extreme example. Adapting to yet another offense was tough in the beginning, but once he grasped the concepts more fully, there was no stopping him (10 receptions, 292 yards and four touchdowns over two playoff games).
Finishing 13-3 again would break from precedent, but all signs point to the 49ers as NFC West favorites.
Much will hinge on whether the offense improves, and to what degree.
The line appears in position to take a step forward. Four of the five starters played at least 92 percent of the offensive snaps last season. The new starter, right guard Alex Boone, is entering his third season with the team. The best offensive lines play together for years. This one increasingly has continuity. There's talent, too, with first-round choices in three of the five spots.
REASONS FOR PESSIMISM
Niners fans should be familiar with the warning labels by now.
Injuries: The 49ers were unusually healthy last season. Alex Smith took a league-high 44 sacks and somehow started every game. He started 16 games in a regular season for the first time since 2006 and the second time in his career. The defense suffered very few meaningful injuries in 2011-12, but the hip bruise Aldon Smith suffered last week highlighted the implausibility of a repeat on that front.
Turnovers: History says San Francisco's plus-28 turnover differential will be unsustainable.
Targets on backs: The 49ers are going from hunters to hunted. Opponents will be gunning for them. Opponents will also have fuller, more accurate reads on the schemes Jim Harbaugh and staff brought to the NFL from Stanford. The unconventional shifting and personnel combinations San Francisco unleashed on opponents might not have the same effect a second time around. That might have begun to happen last season, when the 49ers proved far less dominant when facing opponents a second time.
Tarell Brown has been the best cornerback in camp. Teammates say he puts in the prep time. It shows when the 49ers do situational work. The more specific the situation, the better Brown seems to fare. Brown is also probably the 49ers' best corner in press coverage, an asset in short-yardage situations, whereas the other starting corner, Pro Bowl choice Carlos Rogers, tends to prefer off coverage.
Jacobs has run effectively in short-yardage situations. I did notice rookie linebacker Kourtnei Brown rocking Jacobs twice in one-on-one pass-rush drills during the team's recent Fan Fest practice.
When the 49ers enter their locker room from the practice field, a sign meets them with a list of five points: work hard, stay loose, stay focused, be accountable and take care of one another. The sign greeting them as they leave the locker room reads, "You are getting better or getting worse. You never stay the same."
Versatile corner Perrish Cox is making a strong push to unseat Chris Culliver in the nickel role. No matter what happens, Cox figures to play this season. He's made an impact on special teams as well. Seeking continued improvements in the secondary was additionally important with Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford, Eli Manning, Jay Cutler, Drew Brees and Tom Brady on the schedule this season.
While Harbaugh has defended Jenkins from premature and unfair criticism, all indications point to a gradual assimilation for the receiver San Francisco selected in the first round. Veteran safety Donte Whitner: "When he gets there, I would compare him to a guy like Robert Meachem. He's not really big in stature, but he has a lot of speed. He has some quickness."
Safety Michael Thomas could be an undrafted free agent to watch for the 49ers this season. He knows the defense after playing for coordinator Vic Fangio at Stanford. Whitner: "If I was a betting man, at the end of the season, he'll be somewhere around this football team, whether it be on practice squad or on the 53[-man roster] because he wasn’t drafted, he’s not the biggest guy, not the fastest guy, but he has football instincts and he has football smarts. He’s around the football in practice."
The 49ers do a good job maximizing roster spots. They used nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga at fullback in power packages last season. Staley and Sopoaga caught passes. Bruce Miller successfully converted from college defensive end to starting fullback. Defensive lineman Demarcus Dobbs is the latest project. He's working as a blocking tight end and could conceivably push Nate Byham for the third roster spot at that position. Harbaugh: "He's definitely far enough along. We still don't know what that ceiling is yet."
The defense has a firmer grasp of Fangio's playbook entering a second season together. The team had 42 defensive calls installed when this week opened. That's not an unusual number, but Fangio should be able to call more of them with confidence.
Every player I spoke with -- Alex Smith, Davis, Williams, Jacobs, Staley and others -- mentioned putting team goals before individual ones. Harbaugh and staff have ingrained that mindset in players. It's a storyline to watch now that the 49ers have additional offensive weapons, a strong personality in Moss and higher expectations overall.