Alex Smith Returns to Practice


A crowd of reporters and cameramen stood around Alex Smith's locker Wednesday afternoon, yet the San Francisco 49ers quarterback was not around.

Teammates couldn't help but chuckle when seeing the large gathering of media members patiently waiting to hear the signal-caller's first public comments since suffering a concussion last week against the St. Louis Rams.

Defensive tackle and Apple aficionado Pierre Garçon chimed in loudly from across the room, "Did the iPhone 6 come out already?"

No, the newest must-have gadget wasn't being sought by the media. They were actually in search of reaction from the 49ers quarterback on his first day of practice since the injury he suffered early on in a 24-24 tie.

Smith wore a black jersey out at the team's first practice of the week, a sign he was cleared for non-contact drills. Once the eight-year veteran finished his post-practice lift following the hour-plus practice, he told the waiting reporters that he was doing much better.

"I feel good," Smith said, words often repeated by the 49ers quarterback in his six minute discussion with the media.

It's out of the quarterback's hands if he'll make his seventh career start on "Monday Night Football" against the Chicago Bears, but for now, Smith is pleased with the progress he's made since being examined by an independent neurologist at Stanford.

"Nothing has been decided," Smith stressed. "It's a long process. It's up to the doctors. I'm just doing what they're telling me and moving along."

At practice, Smith seemed to be back to his normal routine according to offensive teammates.

"Same old Alex, funny, joking, happy to be out there," right guard Alex Boone said. "He was ready to lead and that's good for us."

Frank Gore, the franchise's all-time leader in rushing yards and carries, also clearly wants his quarterback to lead the team against a formidable Chicago defense.

The 49ers running back who's three rushing touchdowns from taking sole possession of the franchise's all-time record said he wants to see Jay Cutler in action for the Bears, too. The opposing quarterback is also coming off a Week 10 concussion like Smith and has not yet been cleared to play Monday.

"Hopefully Cutler plays," Gore said. "It'll be a good game. We want their best, you know? I want Cutler to play. The Bears are like a playoff team, they have a great record… we want their best shot… We want their best like they want our best. I know they'd want Alex Smith to play like I said we'd want Cutler to play."

Like Cutler, Smith's presence is extremely crucial to San Francisco's offense. Through nine games, Smith ranks first in the NFL with a 70.7 completion percentage and third in the league with a 104.1 quarterback rating.

If able to play, those percentages will be tested against the NFL's second-best scoring defense. Chicago allows 14.8 points per game, second to, you guessed it, San Francisco's stout defensive unit which allows 14.1 points per contest.

Scoring points will be key for the 49ers offense this week, like any week, but so too will be maintaining possessions against an opportunistic defense. Chicago leads the NFL with a 14 turnover differential, led by cornerbacks Tim Jennings (eight interceptions) and Charles Tillman (seven forced fumbles and two interceptions), who've combined for 17 takeaways already this season.

Gore, in particular, is well aware of Tillman's pension for punching out footballs, a phenomenon that even has a nickname, "The Peanut Punch."

"They're really good at it," said Gore, "especially their D.B., No. 32 Tillman. He does a great job at it."

Ball security will be crucial to the 49ers, more so than any game on the regular season schedule. The Bears lead the NFL with 61 takeaways since 2011. Coincidentally, San Francisco has committed 19 turnovers, first in the NFL during that stretch.

With San Francisco emphasizing a ball-control approach with Smith under center, the 49ers haven't turned the ball over in 11 of Jim Harbaugh's 25 regular season games.

That'll be tested against Chicago, but for now, Smith's status is the biggest storyline to track heading into Monday.

Smith said the next steps for clearance involve his handling of physical activity. In that regard, Wednesday's practice appearance was a good step in the process.

"Contact, obviously, is the final straw," Smith said. "But I was able to go out there today. I had the black jersey on, which is a little redundant seeing as how we don't get hit in practice. But I feel good out there."

Smith was feeling better as soon as the game against the Rams ended and felt like he could drive home, but he elected not to.

The 49ers quarterback took two memorable hits in the game against St. Louis, including an open-field hit from Rams linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar. Smith said the hit didn't cause the concussion, but might've contributed to it.

"It's all kind of speculation, it certainly didn't help," Smith explained. "Talking to the neurologist, yeah, probably contributed for sure. Whether it loosens you up and primes you for the next one, that's not as big, don't know.

"I felt fine after that, though. I know I took a big hit. But vision was fine."

Smith later picked up a 4th-and-1 sneak and said that's when his vision became blurry. That's when he knew something was up.

"Taken a lot of hits through the years, and all of a sudden to try to play quarterback and your vision is not what it should be is difficult," he said. "Ultimately it did not get better. It was not one of those things I could blink off and my focus was returning.

"In fact, I went on the sideline and sat down and it continued to get worse. It wasn't getting better. Ultimately, I didn't feel it was good for me or more importantly it was not good for the team to go out there. I didn't feel like I could help us much."

When 100-percent, the 49ers feel like Smith can help them a whole lot.

So while San Francisco is prepared the ball-jarring ways of Chicago's defense, keeping the quarterback upright – whether Smith or backup Colin Kaepernick – remains most important to the 49ers chances of getting back into the win column.

"It's just one of the things we really have to emphasize," Boone said. "They have great athletes, d-tackles and d-ends. We have to focus on that, keeping Alex out of harm's way."

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