The 49ers are 4-1, two games ahead of their nearest competition in the NFC West. They're a different team under Jim Harbaugh, more confident, more physical and more successful than they've been in almost a decade. While most of the credit for this turnaround has gone to the coach who has it better than everybody, folks are noticing that there's something ... different about their starting quarterback, Alex Smith. It's hard to put your finger on, but it's almost like he's actually good now. That's just an optical illusion created by Harbaugh's fail-safe offense and conservative play-calling, right?
Not according to Kurt Warner, whose recent comments about Smith seem positively surreal to all who've watched the former No. 1 overall pick struggle over the past six years:
On Wednesday, Warner, an NFL Network analyst, ranked Smith as the fourth-best quarterback in the NFL this season, behind Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Drew Brees and ahead of Matthew Stafford.
"My big surprise: Alex Smith comes in at No. 4," Warner said on NFL Total Access. "A guy I probably didn’t expect to make this list all year long, but he’s got his team at 4-1 right now, he’s playing as consistent as anybody. And what I’ve seen the last couple weeks is him making the big play, something that he hadn’t done up to that point in the season."
Wait, what? Alex is the No. 4 quarterback in football? Ahead of Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger, Tony Romo, Eli Manning and Matt Schaub? Actually, Smith is ahead of all those guys (and Brees) in QB rating ... for whatever that's worth.
QB rating is all about quality, not quantity. So one could argue that Smith has been helped by the fact he's attempted fewer passes per game (25.2) than any other qualified passer besides Blaine Gabbert (who's attempted 24.2 passes per game, and that's only because he completed 5-of-6 passes after replacing Luke McCown in the fourth quarter in Week 2).
From Padres to Giants
49ers fans and observers reached complete benefit-of-the-doubt-fatigue with Smith last season -- leading to boos on the field and Smith looking very ready to move on in December. When he almost defiantly wore that Padres cap after the end of the 2010 season it was impossible to imagine Smith even back with the team, let alone leading them to victories. So when is it okay to trust him again?
Born optimists are right there with Warner, proclaiming that THIS is why the Niners drafted Smith where they did -- he's showing the mobility, athleticism and intelligence that was hindered by so many former coaches. Some feel like the last six quarters represent Smith's ceiling as a ball-control quarterback who'd never be in this position of eliciting praise -- unless Harbaugh was there to put him in the best/only situation for him to excel.
A couple strange things occurred in last week's blowout win for the 49ers over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. First, Smith decisively led the 49ers to an extremely easy-looking touchdown on the team's first drive. Second, after the Niners built a substantial lead, Smith looked like he was having a blast out there. He was trying tough passes, and while some of them were batted away and nearly intercepted, he looked like he was trying to test the abilities of himself and his teammates. It was striking compared with the old Alex Smith method of trying to prevent a mediocre situation from turning into crisis and chaos.
Or we could just let one of Warner's favorite targets with the Rams explain:
Said NFL Network analyst Torry Holt, another former NFC West rival from his days in St. Louis, "Alex Smith, it was the first time last week that I saw him actually drop back and just deliver the football without second-guessing anything."
Smith's old opponents believe in him, and Smith (who now wears a San Francisco Giants hat after every game) seems like he believes in himself. Harbaugh probably believes in Smith more than ever -- pretty amazing since during the preseason it seemed like Harbaugh was considering the idea of starting a rookie, Colin Kaepernick, sooner rather than later.
Niners fans didn't all believe in Steve Young until he won a Super Bowl. Jeff Garcia learned that lesson, without the payoff. Even when Garcia was as efficient as could be, people still complained that his style was never good enough to be mentioned with the greats.
Smith, even with a 4-1 start and a nice QB rating, is light years away from hoisting a Lombardi Trophy. If he puts together a good enough game to defeat the undefeated Detroit Lions, is that enough evidence for most people to trust that the team's in good hands with Smith's under center? What would be enough evidence? A playoff berth, as long as he doesn't shrink in his first playoff game? This far removed from Super Bowl success, that might be enough for Niners fans at this point.
You're only as good as your previous week in the NFL, but the fact that "can we trust Alex Smith?" is even a question is a huge gold star on Jim Harbaugh's resume. And it's an even bigger reminder that unless a guy has problems off the field like JaMarcus Russell, it can sometimes be far too easy to label a high draft pick with a word that rhymes with trust and starts with "b".