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October 31, 2010
Niners ride Smith's improv skills to victory

LONDON - After three team hotels, eight time-zone changes and 10 days on the road, the 49ers return to California Monday morning with a rare victory and perhaps a new starting quarterback. Led by Troy Smith's improvisational skills, the 49ers scored 21 points during an eight-minute stretch of the fourth quarter Sunday and then held on for a 24-16 win over the Denver Broncos.

Smith's numbers were modest. He completed 12 of 19 passes for 196 yards and threw one touchdown. But he avoided the catastrophic blunders that fellow quarterbacks Alex Smith and David Carr committed earlier this season, and moreover he showed an ability to turn breakdowns into big plays.

Alex Smith is due back from a sprained left shoulder when, following a Week 9 bye, the 49ers face the Rams Nov. 14. Mike Singletary and the 49ers committed to Alex Smith in the offseason. Indeed the team's fortunes for 2010 were built on a belief that Smith finally would become the productive quarterback the 49ers hoped they were getting when they drafted him No. 1 overall in 2005.

But Singletary hedged when asked who his starter would be as the team goes into the second half of the season. He said the 49ers would move forward as if Troy Smith were the quarterback but that he would consult team doctors about Alex Smith's availability. "I'm going to think about taking a break and then coming back and getting ready to go for a division game," he said. "Really that's about it. All that other stuff will take care of itself."

It was Singletary who last week decided to skip over Carr, the team's preseason No. 2 quarterback, and tap Troy Smith to play against the Broncos. Smith hadn't started a game since 2007 and he only had three days - in rainy Hertfordshire, England no less - to prepare for Denver. Still, Singletary's gamble paid off.

Both Smith and the offensive play calls loosened up in the fourth quarter after the Broncos had taken a 7-3 lead. Two back-to-back plays to tight end Delanie Walker highlighted Smith's evening in London. He showed his arm strength on a second-and-20 situation when he zipped a pass to Walker for a 27-yard gain. On the next play, he proved he could ad lib, something that the cerebral and analytical Alex Smith rarely has done in six seasons.

Rolling to his right, Troy Smith found that his first option wasn't open. As he bought more time with his feet, he signaled for Walker to keep going down field. Smith wound up throwing the ball off his back foot and Walker - sandwiched between Pro Bowlers Champ Bailey and Brian Dawkins - came down with the 38-yard pass at the Broncos 1-yard line. Two plays later, Smith ran into the end zone, and the 49ers never trailed again.

Singletary said the pass was like something Brett Favre would throw. "Sometimes he makes a decision," he said. "Am I going to go in there and say, 'Hey, don't do that'? I don't think so. But I will say, be careful. But that's about it. The kid made a play."

Walker practiced in place of Vernon Davis -- who was dealing with an ankle injury -- most of the week and he and Smith developed a nice rapport during the 49ers' time in England. He said he and Smith stayed after practice to work on plays and talk about different scenarios. "Today he turned to me, and he said, 'Man, if I see you behind them, if I see you have even a step on them, I'm throwing you the ball,'" Walker said. "And I told him, 'Throw it. I'll make these plays for you.' And he did that."

Said Smith: "As a passer, I think that your receivers respect you a little bit more when you let them know that you're going to trust them."

-- Matt Barrows


Matt was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green.


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