Alex Smith handles role with unselfishness, class

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Alex Smith handles role with unselfishness, class

SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) Alex Smith ran off the field at Candlestick Park two weeks ago to a standing ovation and cheers from the sellout crowd, not much different from the reception last January when he took the San Francisco 49ers oh so close to a Super Bowl.

Now relegated to a backup role with the NFC champions, Smith's trip to the Big Easy this week leading up to Sunday's Super Bowl against Baltimore is hardly how he envisioned it.

This used to be his team. Now, he plays Joe Flacco in practice.

Smith expected to be under center chasing the franchise's sixth championship, not watching strong-armed second-year pro Colin Kaepernick direct the offense against Ravens star Ray Lewis and Co.

``I think a lot's being made of that. For one, I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a little bittersweet,'' Smith said. ``Yeah, I want to be out there. That's what you work for. Coming into the season, that's what I was thinking about. That was the mindset for me; that was the goal for me. At the same time, it is a team sport and these are all my teammates.''

As he has done during each such trying time in an up-and-down career full of them, Smith has handled the change with class and the shared team-first attitude that is a big reason his club made it this far.

And Smith, the No. 1 pick from the 2005 draft out of Utah, left no doubt that he would appreciate and relish the rare opportunity before him.

``Absolutely, yes, very much so,'' Smith said of enjoying this experience despite the high-profile, midseason demotion.

Smith acknowledged when he lost the job to Kaepernick back in November that he had done nothing wrong but get hurt. Not only had he completed 26 of his previous 28 passes - 18 of 19 for 232 yards and three touchdowns without an interception and a 157.1 passer rating in a Monday Night Football win at Arizona on Oct. 29 - but Smith earned NFC Offensive Player of the Week honors after that victory.

He then sustained a concussion in the second quarter of a 24-24 tie against St. Louis on Nov. 11. He sat out the next game as Kaepernick dazzled in his debut as an NFL starter, beating the Bears handily at home on Monday Night Football.

After that, coach Jim Harbaugh stuck with the ``hot hand,'' as he regularly put it, while complicating matters by still referring to Smith as a starter.

The eighth-year quarterback is already fielding his fair share of questions about how it feels not being on the field for the biggest moment in a player's career.

``If you can't be happy for them, then something's wrong with you,'' Smith said of his teammates.

Smith revealed last week that he actually got his shot in college when the starter went down injured. At Utah in 2003, starter Brett Elliott broke his wrist on the last play of the game in the second week of the season. Smith took over, and Elliott wound up transferring to Division III Linfield College.

So how could Smith possibly be angry at Kaepernick?

``It'd be pretty hypocritical to be upset about it,'' Smith said. ``It's the nature of sports. He got an opportunity, stepped up and made the most of it.''

Smith made a few things clear: No, his confidence isn't shaken, and, no, he hasn't thought about what's next - where he might end up, or as a starter or a No. 2. When the 49ers faced Arizona to end the season, Smith was asked if he looked at his brief playing time as an audition to be the Cardinals' QB for 2013.

Not with unfinished business this season.

``He's a very classy guy,'' said Packers QB Aaron Rodgers, in Smith's draft class.

San Francisco lost to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants 20-17 in overtime of the NFC title game last January. That fueled everybody, the 28-year-old Smith included.

Smith tossed a perfect 14-yard touchdown pass to tight end Vernon Davis with 9 seconds remaining as the Niners stunned Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints 36-32 in the divisional playoffs last year.

Smith, once booed by the home crowd as he struggled to find a groove for an ever-changing list of offensive coordinators, finally shined last season and produced a career year while thriving under the guidance of former NFL quarterback Harbaugh.

It was Smith, unsigned at the time, who organized San Francisco's summer workouts at nearby San Jose State during the 2011 lockout. Harbaugh handed over his playbook, fully trusting that Smith would be back. He did return on a one-year deal and guided the 49ers to a 13-3 record to end an eight-year playoff drought. Then, he received a three-year contract last spring after Harbaugh and the 49ers flew to North Carolina to work out Peyton Manning, who wound up in Denver.

Smith showed no hard feelings and went back to work. Here's a guy who threw for 1,737 yards and 13 touchdowns with five interceptions and posted a 104.1 passer rating this season.

His family life certainly helps him keep everything in perspective.

Smith and his wife, Elizabeth, are expecting their second son in mid-March to join big brother-to-be Hudson, who turns 2 in May.

Smith has said all the right things and quietly left much unsaid. He has stayed behind the scenes and out of the spotlight - rarely seen in the locker room, even - praising Kaepernick's clutch decision-making and cool demeanor all the while.

``Alex has been a class act as far as handling everything that is going on,'' Davis said. ``He's been through a lot. But he also understands that it's the nature of the business. And this is a business.''

It's not as though it was Smith's first benching. There were several changes during the 2010 season alone.

These days, Smith's backup job is far from complicated.

``For me, it's just being worried about being ready to go,'' Smith said. ``That's my responsibility, knowing the game plan, staying in it, staying focused in the meetings. You don't get the reps that you used to get, so it's a different style of preparation. For me, I have to take the reps standing back there watching, and really do it through Kap.

``You never know when your opportunity's going to come. The good ones are ready when they do come.''

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Ravens excited about increased speed at wide receiver

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Ravens excited about increased speed at wide receiver

Will the Ravens’ increased speed at wide receiver force opponents to defend them differently?

The Ravens hope so.

They were without Breshad Perriman (knee injury) all of last season, and without Steve Smith Sr. (Achilles injury) the final two months.

That gave opponents license to put a safety closer to the line of scrimmage, and to crowd Ravens receivers with press coverage – unafraid that the Ravens could throw deep with success.

However, Perriman is healthy again, and the Ravens added two speed receivers by signing Mike Wallace during free agency and drafting Chris Moore in the fourth round.

The Ravens believe that speed will lead to more big plays, help their running game, and give Smith and other receivers more operating room.

“We’ve had years when we couldn’t back anybody up,” said Ravens coach John Harbaugh. “The ability to back people up, it’s huge – to quote a famous politician not to be named here. It’s hard for me to see the speed all of the time in some of these drills. I’m like,`How fast are they really moving?’ Then I go ask the (defensive backs) and they say, ‘They’re moving really fast.’ And that makes me feel good about it.”

Perriman averaged 19.5 yards per catch at Central Florida, Moore averaged 19.3 yards per catch at Cincinnati, and Wallace has averaged 15.2 yards per catch over a seven-year NFL career.

The Ravens believe their speed will make opponents think twice about crowding the line of scrimmage. And when opponents do crowd the line of scrimmage, the Ravens plan to make them pay with big plays.

RELATED: FREE AGENT WEDDLE ALREADY MAKING AN IMPACT

Ravens quickly convinced Weddle will be difference maker for secondary

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Ravens quickly convinced Weddle will be difference maker for secondary

Veteran safety Eric Weddle is quickly making a strong impression with the Ravens.

After the first week of OTA’s, both coach Johh Harbaugh and defensive back Lardarius Webb mentioned Weddle as being a difference maker, after being acquired in free agency from the Chargers.

Weddle’s experience as a three-time Pro Bowler should be vital for a Ravens secondary that surrendered too many big plays last season.

Webb sees Weddle seamlessly taking command of the secondary, calling out coverages and making sure teammates are lined up properly.

“If he has anything to tell me I’m always listening,” Webb said. “He’s going to be big for this defense – for this team. He speaks up. I told him, `We want Eric Weddle. Don’t hold back. Don’t be quiet. We want you. If you yelled when you were with the Chargers, I want you coming out here yelling. Just be yourself. Grow the beard back, because we want the beard. If that’s who you were, grow the beard. He’s growing it back. He’s being himself and we’re loving it. It was a great move.”

Weddle has been offering advice to Webb on making the transition from cornerback to safety. Weddle can also lead by example, helping the development of young safeties like Terrence Brooks and Matt Elam.

At age 31, Weddle wants to show he can still play at a Pro Bowl level, and he desperately wants to make the playoffs. Harbaugh seems to have no doubt Weddle will make the Ravens’ defense better.

“I just really appreciate his attitude,” Harbaugh said. “He’s got an enthusiasm for the work day. He loves football. He loves every part of the work day. He loves every part of being in here and being a football player. There’s never something that you look at him and he’s not excited to do. That is infectious. That’s something that makes us all better, and to me, that’s one of the things that a great leader does and he’s got those qualities.

“He fits in with how we do things around here perfectly. I give (general manager) Ozzie (Newsome) all the credit in the world. That was a great signing.”

RELATED: CONDITIONING REMAINS AN ISSUE FOR RB RICHARDSON

Will lack of conditioning lead to Richardson's downfall with Ravens?

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Will lack of conditioning lead to Richardson's downfall with Ravens?

Will running back Trent Richardson’s lack of conditioning be his downfall with the Ravens?

Richardson missed the first week of OTA’s with a hamstring issue, which was not the kind of early impression he wanted to make. Some injuries are unavoidable. But conditioning has been an issue for Richardson throughout his brief and so far undistinguished NFL career.

Entering the NFL as the No. 3 overall pick with the Browns in 2012, Richardson has disappointed in Cleveland and Indianapolis, and spent 2015 out of the league after the Raiders cut him before the season. When the Ravens signed Richardson in April, he knew it might be his last NFL chance. However, Ravens coach John Harbaugh wants to see even more commitment from Richardson when it comes to staying in shape.

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“Trent just needs to get healthy,” Harbaugh said after the first week of OTA’s. “I think the workload and the amount of work it takes to be a world class conditioned athlete is something that he’s working on right now. That’s what he needs to understand and that’s where he needs to get himself. When he gets himself there, he’s got talent. It will be fun. I’m very certain he’ll get there and when he does we’ll be able to evaluate him.”

The Ravens don’t have to wait on Richardson. Their running back competition is already intense, with Justin Forsett, Buck Allen, Kenneth Dixon, Lorenzo Taliaferro, and Terrance West all fighting for carries and roles.

Whether Richardson even threatens to make the team remains to be seen. His bigger priority is improving his conditioning, and getting back on the field.

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