Great expectations for 49ers, Cards

SAN FRANCISCO -- Alex Smith and Matt Leinart attended some of the same football camps while they grew up about 80 miles apart in Southern California. Both got the honor of handing off to Reggie Bush, and both developed into high NFL draft picks.

They've become off-field buddies since both quarterbacks landed jobs in the NFC West, and the high-profile Leinart's friendly rivalry with a low-key Smith could develop into something special as the San Francisco 49ers and the Arizona Cardinals rebuild their franchises.

But tonight, both quarterbacks' biggest goal is to coax a good start out of two teams with high hopes for this season, and put consecutive losing seasons behind them.

"We're both trying to do a lot of the same things," Leinart said. "We're coming into the season with a lot of the same goals, and hopefully it's the start of a really good matchup."

Smith knows his Heisman Trophy-winning counterpart came into the NFL with more fanfare, even though Leinart was drafted a year later and nine spots lower than him. Smith also realizes he'll be compared to Leinart for years, particularly because San Francisco's fans were pining to pick Leinart with No. 1 overall choice in 2005 -- but Leinart stayed in school.

"I don't think any scrutiny compares to becoming the first pick and what comes with that," Smith said. "I think it's all downhill since then, but I would kind of expect it. We both play in the same division, both young teams. It comes with the position. As a quarterback, I think you're constantly evaluating and comparing, just by nature of being competitive."

There's no comparing the quarterbacks' celebrity status, however. Smith was unknown outside of San Diego's Helix High and Salt Lake City until the final few games of Utah's undefeated season in 2004, while Leinart has been among Los Angeles' biggest sports celebrities since early in his career at USC.

And that's just fine with Smith, who never entertained the notion of being an NFL star until coach Urban Meyer's Utes caught the nation's attention -- and Smith parlayed it into a prime job with one of the league's marquee franchises.

"For me, I prefer being out of that limelight," Smith said. "I'm not saying one is better than another. Obviously there's a certain amount of it that comes with the position, but as far as the Hollywood stuff, no, it's not for me."

Smith and Leinart made their first start against each other last December, but Leinart incurred a season-ending shoulder injury before Kurt Warner led the Cardinals to victory. Smith's 49ers lost all four of their meetings with Arizona in his first two NFL seasons, but Leinart wasn't responsible for any of them.

While 49ers coach Mike Nolan believes Smith's relatively low profile has been a benefit to his development, Leinart doesn't see anything wrong with spending his rare free time among glitzy friends.

"My job is football," Leinart said. "It's my No. 1 priority, next to my family. That's it. There's no question about it. ... I know I have a great situation here in Arizona. We are young and talented and have what it takes. We just have to go out there and play, but there's no distraction."

After struggling at the helm of an awful offense in 2005, Smith passed for 2,890 yards in 2006 -- and made significant leadership strides in December when he directed road victories at Seattle and Denver. Leinart's rookie season also was a solid success as he passed for 2,547 yards in just 11 starts.

But both quarterbacks had to adjust to new offensive coordinators in the offseason. Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt installed much of the Pittsburgh Steelers' offense when he took over, but San Francisco didn't make many changes when quarterbacks coach Jim Hostler was promoted to replace Norv Turner.

It's too early to pick a winner in a quarterback debate that could occupy West Coast football fans for years, but tonight's meeting should make a good opening argument for either passer.

"They've got a good young guy who's going to turn into a great player, but I like our guy," San Francisco receiver Darrell Jackson said. "I'm sure they like their guy, too."