San Francisco 49ers rookie quarterback Alex Smith kept his helmet on as he paced the sideline yesterday afternoon at FedEx Field, not even bothering to remove it after rookie tailback Frank Gore broke free for a 72-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.
Apparently, Smith needed all the shielding he could get.
Smith, the No.1 selection in this year's NFL draft, found himself harassed consistently in his second career start. From a fumble and a five-yard loss on the game's opening play to a 32-yard interception return by safety Sean Taylor that set up one of seven Washington touchdowns in a 52-17 victory, it was unfamiliar territory for the newcomer.
"This is a situation I've never gone through before, and something I hope I never go through again," said Smith, who led Utah's high-powered offense last season in college but has seen his new professional team outscored 80-20 in his two starts. "It's not something I enjoy, not something I like. Hopefully, I'll learn from it, and we'll get past this."
Though Gore's long run with 2 minutes 13 seconds remaining on the 49ers' last offensive play made the scoring margin more respectable, the 49ers' offensive showing was not. San Francisco managed 70 yards in the opening quarter and trailed only 14-7 after a 17-yard touchdown run by Kevan Barlow, but the second and third quarters produced no points and only 16 total yards on 21 plays, an average of 0.8 of a yard per attempt.
Smith, who completed 8 of 16 passes for 92 yards and no touchdowns, said he was not rattled, but he was certainly overwhelmed. He was sacked five times for losses totaling 38 yards, threw an interception, lost one fumble and twice more fumbled the ball but had it recovered by teammates.
"It concerns me, certainly," San Francisco Coach Mike Nolan said of Smith's miscues. "It's not like Alex has small hands. He's got good-sized hands. He shouldn't be dropping the ball. I don't know why it slipped out."
With the trade of former backup quarterback Tim Rattay -- the 49ers' starter through the first four games -- to Tampa Bay just before last Tuesday's trading deadline, there are few options for Nolan to pursue even if Smith continues to struggle. Waiting in the wings are Ken Dorsey, in his third year from Miami, and Cody Pickett, a second-year player from Washington. Neither has shown the ability to challenge Smith for the starting role.
So this season is likely to continue to be an unpleasant learning experience for Smith, who in his starting debut against Indianapolis two weeks ago completed 9 of 23 passes for 74 yards and was intercepted four times. Smith said the Colts' defense didn't throw much at him, but the Redskins challenged him with constant pressure and plenty of movement to disguise blitzes.
"I learn things every time I play, every rep," Smith said. "We're very young, especially on the offensive side of the ball. We are still trying to get a grasp of what we're running. We learn things every day on both sides of the ball. I think there are glimpses; I can see it. We've just got to get there and keep working through this."