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No. 1, huh? Welcome to NFL reality

49ers rookie QB Alex Smith seeks advice from the best as he tries to adjust.

By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer
Published October 28, 2005

San Francisco rookie quarterback Alex Smith never imagined it would be this bad. As the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft, Smith envisioned a fairy tale, that he would join the downtrodden 49ers and enjoy the same success he always had.

He was naive.

Smith's rude awakening includes five interceptions, 12 sacks, a 17.5 passer rating and a knee so swollen he might not be able to play Sunday against the Bucs. His team is 1-5, including 0-2 since Smith became the starter in Week 5.

"I've been accustomed to success at every level," said Smith, who played two seasons at Utah for coach Urban Meyer. "You listen to how hard it is for rookies and you think, "Oh, it can't be that hard.' You don't realize, especially the top pick, you're going into a different situation."

So far, Smith is the rule, not the exception.

Seven times in the past eight years, the No. 1 overall pick was spent on a quarterback. All were selected by struggling teams looking for a savior at the game's most critical position. None set the league on fire - not at first - and Smith fits right in.

Peyton Manning (1998), Tim Couch (1999) and David Carr (2002) started all or most of their rookie seasons for the Colts, Browns and Texans. Michael Vick (2001) and Eli Manning (2004) began on the bench and took over as starters for the Falcons and Giants. Carson Palmer (2003) didn't play at all for the Bengals.

Their combined record in 54 rookie starts: 11-43.

Philosophies vary on the best way to introduce a young quarterback to the NFL. Among the three applied in recent years - into the fire, patience and extreme patience - each has at least one success story. There also were failures.

So, will Smith be the next Peyton Manning, able to emerge from a dreadful beginning to become an NFL star? Will he be the next Carr, his confidence shaken and his body battered by so many sacks, turnovers and losses? Or will he be the next Couch, out of the league?

Smith is aware of every scenario. To avoid becoming the next high-priced flop, he probed a number of recent first-round picks about their experiences, good and bad. The Manning brothers, Couch, Chad Pennington, Byron Leftwich, Drew Brees.

"Guys who have all had it different," Smith said. "Guys who sat. Guys who played early. Guys who went through rough roads. Guys who came out the other side and some guys who didn't."

Smith, who signed a six-year, $49-million contract, spoke mostly with Peyton Manning, who endorsed playing time, even in the most dire circumstances, as the best way to mature as an NFL quarterback. It will be ugly, Manning told him, but if he maintains his work ethic, he will become a better quarterback.

Peyton Manning is Exhibit A.

As a rookie, he started 16 games, completed 56.7 percent of his passes with 26 touchdowns and 28 interceptions for the Colts, who went 3-13 while he learned on the job. Since, Indianapolis is 70-33 with five playoff appearances, and Manning has been selected to five Pro Bowls and won two MVP awards.

So far, Smith's beginning is every bit as ominous. Named the starter in training camp, he lost the job to incumbent Tim Rattay. After a 1-3 start, first-year coach Mike Nolan decided it was time to make a change. Smith started the past two games - both losses - and Rattay was traded last week to Tampa Bay.

"I think it is important to get that player on the field at some point, especially if he's a No. 1 overall pick," Nolan said. "You want to get him in there and get him working. ... Certainly, if we'd been 3-1 or 4-1 at the time Tim was here, I wouldn't have made the switch."

Smith's first start, ironically, was against Manning and the Colts, who had the league's No. 1-ranked defense at the time.

Smith was 9-for-23 for 74 yards with four interceptions and was sacked five times in a 28-3 loss at home. In Smith's second start, last week's 52-17 drubbing at Washington, he was 8-for-16 for 92 yards with one interception.

He was sacked five times and sustained the knee injury that makes him questionable Sunday against the Bucs.

Nolan said Thursday that former Miami Hurricanes quarterback Ken Dorsey, who began the season as the third-string quarterback, will make his eighth career start Sunday.

The good news for Smith: It can't get much worse.

"At this point, with this team, I feel like the more reps and looks I can get, the better," said Smith, who would hate to miss the experience of facing the Bucs' top-ranked defense.

"I'm so young right now, those are only going to help me out in the future. I've learned a tremendous amount in both of my starts, so I can't imagine what the rest of this season will do for me."

[Last modified October 28, 2005, 01:36:14]

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