Smith earned his shot for the short-term

After taking a big leap forward the week before, Alex Smith took a step back during the 49ers' NFC Championship Game loss to New York. But Smith proved during the playoffs that he's ready and able to perform on the big stage, just as he did most of the season, and despite leaving some big plays out on the field Sunday, Smith needs to be brought back to see if he can build on what he accomplished.

Smith earned that right during his breakout 2011 season, by far the best of his seven-year career – in fact, his only season that would even register as better than average for a NFL starting quarterback.

That doesn't mean the 49ers need to commit to him as their long-term quarterback just quite yet.

Sunday's 20-17 overtime loss to the Giants vividly illustrated the difference between having an elite quarterback and merely having one that can only hope to get there someday.

This isn't to suggest Smith played poorly against the Giants. He didn't. He had two splendid deep throws to Vernon Davis for long touchdowns that, if the 49ers don't make critical mistakes later in the game, might have been enough right there to send the Niners to the Super Bowl with the way San Francisco's championship-level defense was playing.

Smith also made plays with his legs, which is something his elite counterpart Sunday can't do, and what several of Smith's NFL counterparts can't do as well on any given Sunday.

But Smith still stands today as a quarterback who led his team to the NFC title game only because his team's defense and special teams were good enough to take him along for the ride.

Just as he's done since ascending to elite level several years ago, Eli Manning wasn't part of the reason the Giants are going back to the Super Bowl – he's one of the main reasons. There's a fine-line distinction there.

Manning hung in there persevering all day long despite being brutalized by a San Francisco defense that came after him even more relentlessly as the game progressed. But he still made the critical plays when the Giants needed him to, first to stay in the game, then later to take the upper hand. More to the point, Manning made the critical throws when the Giants needed them most.

That's what a championship-level quarterback has to do. Smith missed too many of those throws Sunday when they had to be made to separate the 49ers from the Giants, which San Francisco threatened to do several times before a fateful overtime arrived.

Smith has missed too many of those throws throughout his career. As a passer, he still needs to improve to reach the next level – and, probably, to take the 49ers to the next level.

And, to be sure, the next level is the next frontier to be conquered by Harbaugh's 49ers. After this year's turnaround, a new standard is in place. There will be no settling for less.

But that's the main con regarding Alex Smith. As he displayed many times this season, there are many pros regarding his game and to his development as a legitimate NFL starter.

Smith learned how to truly run an offense this season, and the importance of that can't be minimized. A lot was made this season of many calling Smith a "game manager." Heck, every successful NFL quarterback is a game manager to some extent. That's not an insult. It means Smith finally made it this year to the next level as a NFL QB, to the level of a winner.

No team goes 14-4 and advances to the doorstep of the Super Bowl without representative play from its quarterback. Smith provided that, and he showed plenty of promise to get better. He is skilled athletically. His confidence and decision-making have advanced significantly. He has the arm to make most every throw. He's still only 27 years old.

But you've got to wonder if his great performance in the NFC semifinal victory over the Saints is as good as it ever gets with Smith, if that will be the highlight moment of his career. He made the critical throws he needed to make to beat New Orleans. A week later, with the stakes even higher, he couldn't do it against the Giants.

Smith's game still lacks polish. His game still has holes. For a team that has filled a lot of holes elsewhere, is Smith really the quarterback who can take the 49ers all the way?

The answer, of course, is let's find out. As has been well chronicled, the 49ers want Smith back, Harbaugh wants him back, Smith wants to come back. It's a downright love-fest between them all right now, and has been most of the season.

Smith has entered the realm of $10 million quarterbacks, because that's the going rate these days for veteran, playoff-caliber QBs. As a free agent, Smith won't – and shouldn't, coming of his career year – sign a contract for fewer than two years. So figure the common ground that will be reached for Smith's next 49ers contract to be around three years for $30 million, give or take a year and a few million dollars here or there.

Smith declined earlier this week to say whether he plans to test the open market ("I'm not gonna get into that," he said), but everybody knows the answer. There is no reason for him to go elsewhere. He finally has everything he wants here.

"I mean, at this point, I love it here," Smith said. "Love what's going on, love this team and coaching staff, everything about it. So no question I'd love to stay here."

With a full offseason under Harbaugh's tutelage, Smith could emerge as a star, or at least push for space on the top shelf of NFL quarterbacks. Or he could get better and still remain good but not quite good enough.

Behind Smith is Colin Kaepernick, a bigger, more athletic prospect who is bursting with potential and showed development behind the scenes this season while Smith was getting all the playing time in games. So the 49ers already have a young comer on the roster who can challenge Smith.

That is all the better, because he needs to be pushed to get to the next level, which may be the only way the 49ers ever get there as a team with Smith as their QB.

But they got pretty close with Smith this year. There's no doubt the 49ers should stick with him over the short-term to see if Smith's capable of taking them any farther.

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