With the 2012 U.S. Open set to take place this week at San Francisco's Olympic Club, it's fitting that Alex Smith and the rest of the 49ers are heading to the "driving range."
According to the 49ers quarterback, the start of the team's mandatory three-day minicamp serves as an opportunity for the offense, in particular, to work on everything in the bag.
"This is a great time to get some work in, a little bit like the driving range," explained Smith, the eighth-year signal caller who's coming off his first 3,000-yard passing season and a career-low five interceptions. "If you yank one left, it's not the end of the world. You can try some new things… You can really push the boundaries out here."
As is the case in the game of golf, Smith and the 49ers offense aren't looking to go out of bounds in their offseason workouts. Instead, the unit looks to make greater strides than what took place in its first season under the direction of offensive coordinator Greg Roman.
As Roman sees it, minicamp and the team's offseason program as a whole allows the coaching staff to mold its players and find the schemes that best suit their talents.
"We evolved a lot as the season went on," explained Roman, who helped the 49ers finish as the league's eighth-best rushing attack without a full offseason. "Going back and looking at some of those early games, it's hard to remember being in that position where it's all new for everybody for the first time.
"So that's what we're going through as coaches right now, the entire staff, at every position. It's an opportunity at this time of year for all of the position coaches to really, really spend a lot of time with their guys."
Roman and his offensive staff often go over topics like what certain players can bring to the offense and how their roles affect what happens with the team in the big picture. It's a constant dialogue according to the 49ers play-caller.
For Smith, being a starter on offense doesn't mean it's time to rest on previous accomplishments.
The 49ers quarterback has spent a great deal of time refining his mechanics this offseason. In order to ensure he's continuing to use the proper footwork and throwing motion, Smith also reviews practice film every day to evaluate all of his throws.
"This is the time where I can really do that stuff," Smith added.
Despite having to play "catch up" at this time last season, Smith saw the 49ers passing game (ranked 26th in the NFL) take strides throughout his first year working with Roman. In Smith's mind, chunk plays (20-plus yard gains) and play-action passes improved as the year went on.
In talking with the media on Tuesday, it was clear Smith can't help but feel relieved this offseason. No longer does he have to learn a new offense, and teach it to teammates at the same time like he did at San Jose State during the league's offseason work stoppage.
"It's kind of laughable to compare it to last year," Smith said.
Roman expressed a similar sentiment.
"We are so much further ahead," the coordinator said. "At this point last year, we hadn't even seen a guy. There's a tremendous amount of value in the offseason and our players are taking full advantage of that. I think it's going to really help us."
Situational football, according to Roman, is where the 49ers stand to make the greatest strides compared to last offseason.
"Last year we might have been a hair off," Roman said. "Now, we're having a chance to start over and hopefully it shows on Sundays."
Even with limited practice time and non-contact practice provisions in place, Smith sees the 49ers getting the most out of their time together.
"Not even in close to where we were last year," said Smith, before quickly pointing out, "I think with that said, we've all said this around here, it doesn't guarantee you anything."
Success isn't set in stone for the 49ers, neither is playing time. With many talented players added to the roster (Randy Moss, Mario Manningham, A.J. Jenkins, Brandon Jacobs and LaMichael James) Roman likes the way the play-makers, in particular, are getting down timing with the 49ers quarterbacks while building bonds with the entire team.
The 49ers coordinator has also witnessed the progression of defensive linemen Will Tukuafu and Demarcus Dobbs taking practice reps at fullback and tight end, respectively.
Call it another "wrinkle" in Roman's varying offensive attack.
But until the offensive coordinator can showcase his full plans for 2012 (and the team's Week 1 opponent, the Green Bay Packers), Roman will focus on the finer details for his unit to truly be successful in the long haul.
Asked for his offense's short-term goals for the mandatory minicamp, Roman replied, "One goal is not to jump offside once. We just talked about that inside. I think it's just everything – the little things.
"We've been installing most of our packages twice now and this will be the third time throw. So, really more efficient in everything – guys knowing what to do. Really good tempo. Just being sharp all the way around. Just going out and playing and having fun doing it."