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49ers’ Alex Smith: Has He Turned the Corner?

QB Alex Smith’s 2011 season was highlighted by his amazing bootleg run vs. New Orleans in his first postseason start.

It has been seven long years since he was drafted into the NFL, as the first overall pick, to the San Francisco 49ers. Is this the season where Niners fans can finally say that they have their franchise quarterback?

After QB Alex Smith helped guide the 49ers to their first NFC Championship berth since 1997, it is still strangely undecided.

The truth is that Smith, who has had a roller-coaster career as signal-caller in the City by the Bay, has long been doubted, and still is, to a certain extent. After all, since the standout quarterback out of the University of Utah, and teammate of Reggie Bush at San Diego’s Helix High School, entered the league in 2005, many wondered if he deserved the accolade. He was not a conventional QB, coming out of then-head coach Urban Meyer’s shotgun system, and it was unclear how he would fare in a traditional West Coast offense.

When he was handed the starting reins late in 2005, things did not go so well – playing in nine games while starting seven of them, Smith completed only one touchdown to 11 interceptions, with a dismal 40.8 passer rating. Things got better for Smith when Norv Turner came in at offensive coordinator in 2006 – culminating in a statement game against rival Seattle that showed 49ers fans flashes of brilliance he could bring to the franchise. It was the only season (before 2011) where Smith started all 16 games and passed for over 2500 yards (2890).

Then, as they say, the rest is history – Turner left for San Diego’s head coaching job during the offseason, and Smith was stuck with his third offensive coordinator in as many years. It turned into an OC carousel for Smith throughout his career – a veritable nightmare for any potential franchise QB. One must remember that many signal-callers go through the majority of their careers with a familiarity with their offensive systems. With the turnover in San Francisco, Smith was forced to learn a new offensive system every single year.

Need I remind you … ?

Fast-forward to 2011: The arrival of head coach Jim Harbaugh, a former QB who played for the likes of the Chicago Bears, San Diego Chargers and Indianapolis Colts – the latter of which he almost guided to Super Bowl XXX – turned out to be a godsend for Smith. Harbaugh took the perceived “fragile” QB under his wing and proceeded to build up the confidence he needed to be a genuine starting quarterback. His performances in Philadelphia and Detroit (the latter of which was overshadowed by the “handshake heard ’round the world“) had 49ers fans and Alex Smith critics alike take notice of his improvement as a team leader.

In only his second season starting all 16 games, he posted career highs in passing yards (3144), passer rating (90.7), completion percentage (61.3) and rushing yards (179). While his numbers were pedestrian, his will to win and leadership were not, as he proved in his first ever postseason game.

When the New Orleans Saints trotted onto Candlestick in January 2012 for the NFC Divisional Playoff, many still believed that Smith would be drastically outmatched in a shootout against a high-powered offensive team like the Saints. However, much like he did in the regular season, Smith showed flashes of offensive brilliance. Trailing for most of the fourth quarter in a high-scoring game, Smith’s bootleg run to the end zone, and the game-winning touchdown which will go down in 49ers lore as “The Grab”, showed the football world that he had arrived as a franchise quarterback.

While his efforts in 2011 did not stop the 49ers organization from pursuing future Hall of Fame QB Peyton Manning earlier this offseason, Smith’s achievements were not completely ignored. Shortly after he flirted with the Miami Dolphins, Smith returned to the loving arms of Harbaugh and the 49ers, signing a three-year, $24 million deal. It seemed that, despite the organization’s flirtations with Manning, Harbaugh still had the utmost confidence in Smith, his constant improvement, and his abilities moving forward:

I think if you look at some of the pictures of him when he first came into the league as a young, skinny 20-year-old, and watch him develop and watch him, maybe you call it a late-bloomer physically. But he’s really a man now, a real strong man. He works extremely hard at it. But I’m excited because he’s throwing the ball with a lot of velocity, he’s throwing very accurately, he’s worked very hard on his mechanics.

Believing the Niners were only a couple of bad plays (and a couple of reliable passing weapons) away from the Super Bowl, the organization made a considerable effort to surround Smith with more offensive firepower.

Once again, sorry, Kyle.

The 49ers offense is now considerably more formidable, heading into the 2012 season. They picked up a seemingly rejuvenated Randy Moss, who, at 36 years old, reportedly is still as potent as ever as a deep threat. They also added a reliable slot receiver in former New York Giant Mario Manningham, who may line up on the other side of Moss in the first-team offense. Along with newly-drafted weapons in Illinois WR A.J. Jenkins and Oregon RB, and former Heisman Trophy candidate, LaMichael James, the offensive squad looks poised to explode … but what of Smith, and his doubters?

Said Smith after a recent practice with his new weapons: “It’s like waking up on Christmas. You have a lot of new toys out there, new presents.”

With his newfound confidence in his team, and in himself, it seems as if the unquestioned starting QB has little reason to have the mindset of a castoff, like he seemed to have had in recent years under Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary. Based on the quarterback’s history in the NFL, a comparison between Smith and signal-callers like Cam Newton, who were obviously statistically superior, would have been laughable.

And now?

This is the honest truth: I could absolutely care less on yards per game. I think that is a totally overblown stat because if you’re losing games in the second half, guess what? You’re like the Carolina Panthers and you’re going no-huddle the entire second half and, yeah, Cam Newton threw for a lot of 300-yard games. That’s great. You’re not winning, though.

“Wow, dude. Not cool.”

Judging from the attitude from both he and his head coach, we are no longer seeing a man who was literally days away from being cut from the team without a second thought. We are no longer seeing a man whom everyone, even his own coaching staff, doubt as a leader. Touted by some as the frontrunners to represent the NFC in Super Bowl XLVII, it seems as if Alex Smith is poised to help the team get there, and grow more into his own in the process – arguably, for the first time in his career.

While there are still doubters waiting to pounce on Smith in 2012, it will be interesting to see whether he will continue to grow into the bonafide leader the 49ers were hoping they drafted seven years prior. One thing is for sure: Coach Harbaugh and his Niners team will be there for him, every step of the way.

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