Thursday, August 21, 2003

They’re breathing a little easier in San Francisco now that Pro Bowl quarterback Jeff Garcia is back, pun intended. Garcia, first all-time in touchdown/interception ratio and fourth in quarterback rating and completion percentage, was diagnosed with two bulging discs in his lower back before the start of training camp.

When the 33-year-old Garcia’s condition became public, longtime 49ers fans thought back to Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana coming down with a bad elbow in 1991 at 34. Neither rest nor pain-killing shots helped much. Montana barely played for San Francisco again, although he had two solid seasons later in Kansas City. And none of Garcia’s backups can be compared to Steve Young, who was second string to Montana.

“I felt good, a little bit rusty, but I guess that’s to be expected,” Garcia said after returning to practice Monday. “I felt fairly sharp strength-wise and mobility-wise. I was moving around just fine. I was making every throw required and not feeling any sort of pain in the back. As far as the first day out, everything was positive.”

Garcia said the injury to fellow standout quarterback Michael Vick of Atlanta last Saturday didn’t cause him to reconsider his plan to see his first action of the preseason — and first in new coach Dennis Erickson’s offense — tomorrow night against New Orleans.

“I want to get that first hit out of the way,” Garcia said. “How I respond from that is going to be key … just saying, ‘OK, I can deal with this.’ Going into the season, I would much prefer to have some reps in the preseason so I can get those kinks out and get the feel of the speed of the game.

“Having to make decisions in a more up-tempo type of situation is very important. When I step out on the field, I don’t have any concerns with my back. I don’t even think about it. You can’t afford to think that way, because then you start to be hesitant about your decision making. Then you do put yourself into a position where you can potentially injure yourself.”

Losing Garcia obviously would cripple the 49ers’ chances of making their first Super Bowl since 1994.

Safety last — Aeneas Williams is one of the finest players of his generation, but at 35 and coming off leg and ankle injuries that ruined his 2002 season, the seven-time Pro Bowl cornerback is now St. Louis’ free safety.

With free agent acquisition Jason Sehorn — a fellow former Pro Bowl corner — out until October with a broken foot and the unheralded Jerametrius Butler playing well at corner opposite fellow youngster Travis Fisher, the Rams have made the Williams shift semi-permanent.

Mr. Work Habits — Denver’s Rod Smith has caught more passes for more yards than all but two receivers the last six seasons. But where Indianapolis’ Marvin Harrison was the 19th pick in the 1996 draft and Jacksonville’s Jimmy Smith the 36th choice in 1992, Smith wasn’t even selected in 1994, signing with Denver after the draft. He spent his rookie year on the practice squad and caught 22 passes the next two years before finally emerging as a star in 1997.

Today at 33, Smith is the Broncos’ captain and role model. During his 10 offseasons in Denver, he has never missed a scheduled workout.

“Working hard is the only way I know how to do it,” Smith said. “I came from the bottom. The practice squad is the lowest you can get without cleaning up around here, but my foot was still in the door. I just had to outwork the next man. This is your job. You have to dedicate yourself to it. If you work at a bank, you have to be there from 9 to 5 every day, year-round. You don’t get three, four or five months off like we do. So I don’t take three, four or five months off, and I don’t expect other guys to do that either. If you do, you’re cheating me when we come back together as a group and you’re not on top of your game.”

Smith also credits former position coach Mike Heimerdinger, now Tennessee’s offensive coordinator, for making him an NFL receiver.

“My first year here, my receivers coach did more yelling at me than anything,” Smith recalled. “I had played on turf for five years [at Division II Missouri Southern], so I was used to getting good traction all the time. On the grass here, I was slipping and falling on every third route.

“Fortunately for me, Mike knew one of my college coaches and during the next offseason, he took me out here and showed me how to run routes, to read defenses and to quit slipping and falling. Most of the time you drop the ball it’s not because your feet are bad, it’s because you slipped a little bit and you’re off balance because your feet are bad. Mike spent time with me, so that’s what I do with our young receivers because one day I’m not going to be here, and I still want them to be one of the best receiving corps in the league.”

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