Smith is struggling mightily in 3rd year

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SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Except when he's on the football field, Alex Smith's life is awfully good.

He has a loving family, a beautiful girlfriend and a charming home on some of the priciest hilltop real estate in Silicon Valley. Wherever he goes, people line up to please the quarterback of the Bay Area's most beloved sports franchise. He hasn't even spent any of his millions on a car because dealers are so eager to loan free rides to him.

Smith knows he's led a charmed existence for a while now, ever since his unbeaten season with Utah in 2004 catapulted him to the top of the NFL's draft boards, where the San Francisco 49ers made him the heir to Joe Montana and Steve Young.

Trouble is, every dream eventually ends — and Smith's first 2 1/2 NFL seasons will never be found in a storybook.

"Coming into the season, I thought he was ahead of where he has been right now," coach Mike Nolan said Wednesday in a conference call with Seattle media. "I thought he would do a better job up to this point."

The 49ers (2-6) are halfway through a season that's shaping up as one of the worst offensive campaigns in football history, and Smith is the captain of a sinking ship. His numbers are uniformly terrible, from his 800 yards passing to the 49.7 completion rate, but one factoid stands out: Smith's passer rating is 57.6, the 34th-best in a 32-team league.

"I want my stats to be good, but the bottom line is I want to win games," Smith said as the 49ers began preparations for Monday night's game against the Seattle Seahawks, their next chance to snap a six-game losing streak.

"You can't get too far down. There's got to be some light at the end. People can look at the stat line, and obviously the QB rating hurts, but I'm not going to stop trying to get better every week."

Smith is no longer a wide-eyed No. 1 draft pick whose rookie mistakes could be chalked up to inexperience. He's also not the second-year pro who seemed to be gaining confidence and skill under the tutelage of Norv Turner, who has helped plenty of passers reach their potential.

Instead, Smith is just a struggling quarterback in charge of the league's most inept offense by most statistical measures.

With just two TD passes and four interceptions, his completion rate has dipped below 50 percent — the NFL's worst. So is that passer rating, nearly 20 points lower than last season's awful number.

The 49ers haven't scored 20 points in a game since their season opener, and their 104 total points are the NFL's second-fewest. They haven't passed for 200 net yards in their past 21 games, and they're still waiting for the first 300-yard game of Smith's career.

But numbers don't show Smith's biggest problems over the past two weeks. He visibly favored his recently separated shoulder while playing poorly in a blowout home loss to New Orleans last month, then went 17-for-38 with three interceptions while wildly missing several open receivers in a loss at Atlanta last weekend.

Nolan repeatedly has said his future is tied to Smith, his biggest investment to date in three years running the 49ers. Though Nolan isn't even close to giving up on his quarterback, he's hoping better days arrive soon.

"His accuracy has been a little off," Nolan said. "I think that's somewhat due to the soreness he has in the shoulder, but at the same time, if you can play, you know quarterbacks are expected to perform at a high level."

There are plenty of legitimate reasons for Smith's struggles aside from his shoulder.

For the third consecutive year, Smith has a new offensive coordinator — Jim Hostler, who's been roundly criticized since Week 1 — and arguably the NFL's least impressive group of receivers, who have dropped more of his passes per attempt than any quarterback in the league.

The injury-plagued offensive line that played so well last season has struggled, failing to open up a running game that would remove pressure from Smith's shoulders.

Smith's accuracy might be down, but his toughness can't be questioned. He has played through more than his share of sacks, and he refused to leave San Francisco's game against the Saints despite his painful shoulder injury.

He's not giving up this storybook life without a fight — and Nolan isn't close to taking him out of the game.

"I think it's about your work ethic and your determination," Smith said. "This offense knows what we're capable of, and it's really a matter of executing and going out and doing it. You have to have that drive. If you don't have that, you're probably not going to be here very long. That's what drives me to continue to be better."

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