What's the verdict now on Alex Smith?
The verdict is still out on Smith, no doubt, because the 49ers won big during the 2011 season behind the standout play of their defense and special teams, which were superior to practically every opponent San Francisco played as it steamrolled to a 13-3 finish after going 6-10 the year before with basically the same group of core offensive players.
That cannot be denied. And the cynics will continue to point out an offense that finished 26th in the NFL rankings this season is San Francisco's weak link. And they will point out that Alex Smith, 19-31 as a NFL starter entering this season, is the quarterback of that weak-link offense.
But after San Francisco's complete turnaround transformation under first-year coach Jim Harbaugh, how Smith and that offense are viewed is now a matter of perception.
Sure, Smith proved himself to be a capable game manager while the 49ers were shocking the NFL world during their 9-1 start. He didn't make mistakes. He didn't lose games. And San Francisco won and won and won.
But during the team's three-game winning streak to close out the franchise's best regular-season finish since 1997, Smith emerged as a legitimate factor in the difference between the 49ers winning games and losing games.
And by the end of the season, Smith was the primary factor in the 49ers tying a NFL record for fewest turnovers committed with just 10. And he basically was the only factor responsible for the Niners tying a NFL record for fewest interceptions in a season with five since Smith threw all but six of San Francisco's 452 passes this season.
That's not a lot of passes for a team to throw in a season in this NFL era of wide-open offense and pass-happy attacks. But the 49ers are unique in that they are not like those numerous NFL teams whose only hope to win is by throwing the ball all over the place.
Harbaugh's 49ers don't need Smith to do that. Instead, he has been asked to not make mistakes and not take chances putting the ball in the air in certain situations, particularly once the team got into the extensive field-goal range of David Akers, who set an NFL record with 44 field goals this season to go with his 166 points scored, the most ever by a NFL kicker.
But when the margin between winning and losing narrowed for the Niners during the December stretch run – when they needed Smith to step up to carry the offense with running back Frank Gore hurting and their receiver corps decimated by injury – Smith emerged more as a play-making weapon than just an ancillary part of the offense.
He did it against the Steelers and Seahawks, leading the 49ers to two hard-fought victories in a span of six days. And to close the season Sunday, he most definitely did it against the St. Louis Rams in a game San Francisco had to win to secure the No. 2 seeding in the NFC playoffs and the much-needed bye week that goes with it.
The 49ers were not on their game against the two-win Rams. They were a hurting team. They were a worn-out team. They were a team that has seen much better days this season. They were a team with more-important playoff battles ahead.
They were a team that quickly fell behind 7-0 against an opponent they'd blanked 26-0 four weeks previously. They were a team that allowed the hapless Rams – ranked a distant last in the NFL in scoring and second-to-last in total offense – and their third-string quarterback to march down the field and take the lead on their first offensive possession.
The 49ers needed a spark. And in one play that illustrated what Smith has become this year, the seventh-year veteran gave it to them.
It was late in the first quarter, the 49ers facing third-and-goal at the St. Louis 8-yard line. Taking the snap in shotgun formation, Smith slipped to the ground to avoid hard-charging St. Louis defensive end Chris Long, a guy who finished seventh in the NFL this year with 13 sacks.
The Alex Smith of previous seasons might have been downed and doomed right there. But Smith popped back up off the turf before anybody could get a hand on him, then drifted toward the right sideline, buying time and looking for a receiver.
Earlier this season, Smith might have just thrown the ball away, playing it safe on a broken play, making sure the Niners got their nearly-guaranteed three points from Akers.
But Smith saw an opening in front of him, and he would not let the play die. It appeared he wouldn't have enough room to get to the right pylon before being swarmed by defenders, but he took off anyway, showing the mobility and athleticism Smith finally put to good use this season with his feet.
Gore and tight end Justin Peelle gave Smith a shot at the end zone with sweeping cut blocks of St. Louis defenders Chris Chamberlain and James Laurinaitis, and Smith went for it. He launched his body and dove for the end zone, breaking the invisible plane over the pylon before he touched down for a tying touchdown.
"That's a will-to-win attitude, and he showed it out there," tight end Vernon Davis said. "He'll do whatever it takes to help this team win, and that's what we need. We need that from Alex Smith each and every game. And he's doing it. I'll take my hat off to him. He's a playmaker, and he's making plays. And he's helping us win."
Davis' words resonated after San Francisco's 34-27 win because they were so on the mark. Smith is doing what it takes for the 49ers to win. He is making plays. And San Francisco will need that from Smith in each and every game it plays during the team's first trip to the postseason in nine years.
Smith's passing numbers pale in comparison to the other prolific throwers in this year's NFL playoff derby, and nobody is confusing him with the several great quarterbacks that inhabit the league today.
But his play and presence at the position deserve merit. He has learned how to win playing within a system. And more importantly – much more importantly – he has proven he actually has the ability and wherewithal to do it.
Smith completed 61.4 percent of his passes this season while setting career highs with 3,150 yards passing and a passer rating of 90.7, which left Smith with a final No. 9 ranking among the NFL's leading quarterbacks this season, easily his highest ever.
Those are the best numbers produced by a 49ers quarterback since Jeff Garcia was in town for the last of his three consecutive Pro Bowl seasons nearly a decade ago, which also happens to be the last season San Francisco went to the playoffs.
Harbaugh, understandably, has been pumping up Smith since the coach made the internal decision to make Smith his quarterback sometime last winter. But when Harbaugh did so again without solicitation during his Monday news conference, it seemed more apropos rather than a calculated coach playing to his usual agenda.
Between lauding Smith's play against the Rams and later reiterating that "I really want him to come back here next year," Harbaugh cut to the chase regarding a much-maligned former No. 1 overall draft pick who finally has grabbed hold of the quarterback position for the 49ers.
"Any time a quarterback can start 16 games for you and play pretty much every down for you the entire season, that's a man-sized job," Harbaugh said. "It's hard to do, and you don't see many guys do it. But (Smith)'s been mentally tough and physically tough the entire year and he's still in good shape right now.
"He's experienced enough to know how to do things. He's rarely going to have a lapse in that phase of the game. He makes a lot of plays. We've talked before about how good he is, in terms of understanding situational plays in football. We have talked about that before, those plays that don't show up in the yards statistics and the touchdown statistics when you start comparing him to other quarterbacks. But it's there."
And now it's showing up more than ever. Just in time for Smith's first trip to the playoffs, an elevated new platform on which he will gladly be judged.
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