Smith starts over with a new fresh start

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Smith starts over with a new fresh start

SAN FRANCISCO -- A year ago at this time, all Alex Smith wanted was a fresh start.Coach Jim Harbaugh was settling into his new job with the 49ers. And he began studying Smith, the team's harshly criticized quarterback, with an open mind.Smith, by the way, had already decided he needed to go somewhere -- anywhere -- after six unproductive years with the 49ers."I wanted to get to know him," Harbaugh said.
Harbaugh got to know Smith as much as possible -- as a person and as a player -- without completely obliterating NFL rules. He took him out on the practice field behind the 49ers team offices and they threw the ball around. They talked. They worked on mechanics. They developed a mutual trust."The things I wanted to know, boiled it down to one thing," Harbaugh said. "Did he want to start? Did he want to be in the fire? Or did he want to wear the ball cap backwards and backup somewhere?"In other words, was Smith content being a backup just to leave the pressure of playing for the 49ers, the team that selected him No. 1 overall in the 2005 draft? In 2010, Smith could not escape the loudest boos of his career from the fans at Candlestick Park.It would've been easy for him to leave the boos behind.It was the expected move. And nobody would've blamed him for escaping as quickly as possible an organization that provided defensive-minded head coaches and a new coordinator every season.
But Alex Smith choose to remain."That character of wanting to come back and do it here in San Francisco, which is pretty rare," Harbaugh said. "Probably somewhere between rare and extinct, not just for football players but for just about anybody. Most guys would say, 'The heck with that; I've had enough, time for a fresh start somewhere else.' And I thought we could really work with that kid. To me that was special."It was also a unique offseason all around football. The lockout lifted for one day because of conflicting court orders. But that one day window enabled Smith, unsigned at the time, to spend an entire day at the 49ers' offices gathering information about the 49ers' new offense.A month later, after sufficiently studying playbook, game film and PowerPoint material, Smith began teaching it to his teammates and organized two weeks of offensive get-togethers at San Jose State, known as "Camp Alex."His place as a leader was cemented during that time.Then, he went out and had the best season of is career, ranking ninth in the league with a 90.7 passer rating with 17 touchdowns and five interception. The 49ers offense tied an NFL record for fewest turnovers in a season, enabling the team to finish with a 13-3 record, an NFC West championship, and the No. 2 seed in the playoffs.And, now, it all comes down to this. Smith takes the field Saturday for his first NFL playoff game.Most of the attention and intrigue is on the other side of the ball with New Orleans' record-setting quarterback Drew Brees and the 49ers' defense -- a unit that surrendered just 87 points in eight home games this season.It's all but a foregone conclusion that Smith will be back with the 49ers next season regardless of how he fares in his first playoff game.Smith got the fresh start that he desired a year ago -- and he did not have to leave town to get it. And this playoff game gives him another chance to strike from the ledger all that happened in his first six forgettable seasons with the 49ers.

49ers specialists get drenched in preparations for inclement weather

49ers specialists get drenched in preparations for inclement weather

CHICAGO – The 49ers trained for the expected low-30s temperature and snow at Soldier Field with a week of workouts in the 80-degree heat of Florida.

However, the team’s specialists got some practice handling wet footballs during the 49ers’ final practice in Orlando, Fla.

Special-teams coordinator Derius Swinton and his assistant, Michael Clay, made a game of it. Long-snapper Kyle Nelson had to execute 10 perfect snaps to holder Bradley Pinion for field goals. Then, Pinion moved back to punt formation, where another 10 in a row were required.

But they had to be perfect while Swinton and Clay squirted water on the ball and at the hands of Nelson and Pinion, who also received a blast of water in his ear hole at one point.

“We always look up to see if there’s a chance of rain or snow, and we go, ‘Wet-ball drill,’ ” Nelson said. “They (Swinton and Clay) get to have fun, squirting water on us and use the water bottles.

“They make it as bad as possible.”

Nelson and Pinion teamed up to execute perfectly on all 20 field goals and punts.

“If I can do this, in a game it’s going to be even easier,” Nelson said. “They make it a lot harder in practice than it is in a game, so when we get to a game, everything is not as fast.”

The weather conditions on Sunday against the Chicago Bears will likely challenge Nelson, Pinion and kicker Phil Dawson as much as anyone. Dawson has been tracking the weather forecasts for more than a week to get mentally prepared for what he might face.

“Soldier Field is notorious for being a tough place to kick because of the wind and the field itself,” Dawson said this week on the 49ers Insider Podcast. “The footing is pretty poor. So when you add snow and moisture to the equation, it’s going to be one of those days.

“You need to have conversations with your coaches and let them know – be honest with them – about the difficulty. But you have to do that without it affecting your confidence to go out and get the job done.”

Said Nelson, “It takes more focus in bad weather. The snaps have to be a little more perfect. Bradley has to focus more on catching the ball, and Phil has to concentrate on the approach and be more cautious.”

Mark Helfrich provides insight into Chip Kelly's line of thinking

Mark Helfrich provides insight into Chip Kelly's line of thinking

Mark Helfrich had a strong indication he would be fired as Oregon’s head coach. And he said he told Chip Kelly recently he would have no hard feelings if Kelly left the 49ers to return to coach the Ducks.

Kelly this week said he is not interested in abandoning his job with the 49ers to coach in the college ranks. Helfrich suggested during a radio interview on Friday that Kelly told him the same thing privately.

When it was suggested that Kelly hated to recruit, Helfrich did not disagree.

"That's a fact," Helfrich said in an interview on ESPN Radio's Russillo and Kanell. "I don't know hated recruiting. . . a dislike. A strong dislike. But I think Chip has that challenge in his mind right now to make it right in the NFL.

"I had some of those conversations with him a couple weeks ago when it looked like this was going south. That was a very awkward converation, but (I) just wanted to let him know that to take our personal relationship out of it in every way, shape or form if he wanted to consider this.

"But, me, reading between the lines, I think he wants to make it right in the NFL. I think he wants to win at that level. He's had a rough go of it this year, but he'll get it right."

Kelly compiled a 46-7 record in four seasons in Eugene, Ore. He left after the 2012 season to accept the head-coaching job with the Philadelphia Eagles. Kelly was fired late last season and took the 49ers job two weeks later.

In Kelly’s first season with the 49ers, the club is 1-10. The 49ers are on a franchise-long 10-game losing streak entering Sunday’s game against the Chicago Bears.

Helfrich was 37-16 in his four seasons at Oregon after his promotion from offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Kelly said he spoke with Helfrich the morning after he was fired.

“I just felt bad for Mark. I love him like a brother,” Kelly said. “He’s a tremendous person. He’s a hell of a football coach, but he’s an even better person. Just felt for him and the rest of the guys on that staff. It’s an unfortunate thing that goes on in this profession. We all know about it when we sign up, but when it happens you’re still taken aback by it.”

Kelly said he hoped his denial of any interest in the Oregon job would end all speculation about his future. When asked if intends to remain with the 49ers, Kelly said on Wednesday, “Yep. So we're all done with that, I hope."