I've got to say, I find it really impressive that Alex Smith has only 2 interceptions all year. That's actually crazy when you look at how many picks some of the other top QB's have. Still, I wonder if Harbaugh's conservative approach doesn't mean that this is as good as it gets with Smith. I think that Smith is playing well and has done an amazing job mastering the offense and running through his reads quickly. He's done an equally amazing job of identifying the weak spots in the defense and finding the best match-ups. Sure, sometimes he's missed the throws, but he seems to be able to go through his reads with great efficiency and all-in-all has been accurate even on deep balls.
What seems to be the problem are his instincts. He still doesn't have the confidence to fit it into a tight spot unless he absolutely has to (and when he does, he often does a pretty good job of it). But it takes a certain amount of confidence to be able to make those throws when you don't have to, since you expose yourself to a lot of criticism if they don't work out. That confidence can develop, but I feel like it mostly has to do with one's psychological maturity dating back to childhood development. Trent Dilfer talked about how when he was a Niner (Alex's first year) during quarterback's meetings, Alex would get super nervous when he was asked a question the answer to which he was unsure of.
That nervousness (or you could call it lack of confidence) is what I think holds Smith back from being a truly elite QB, a certain pressure that he feels he has to be making the right decision all the time, versus a more zen-like acceptance that to make big plays you have to be willing to make the wrong decision sometimes. And frankly, I think that that's such a big part of what it takes to be a truly great QB -- to be able trust yourself enough to know when to risk and when not to risk the tight throws. With Alex that weighs far too heavily on the 'not-make-the-throw' side. With someone like Favre -- who was supremely talented -- it tipped heavily to the 'f**k-it-let's-try-it-out' side (and he was so talented he could usually get away with it). I think it's this decision making that separated the likes of Montana from the likes of Marino and Elway. He had an uncanny ability to limit interceptions, without being too scared to take the necessary risks that have to be taken to be an elite QB in the NFL.
This sounds silly, but sometimes I wonder if they've identified this problem with Alex. Harbaugh has done an amazing job helping Alex learn the offense and make safe decisions, but I wonder if he realizes that Alex could really explode if he were able to get a sport's psychologist to work on this subtle mental side of quarterbacking with him. Urban Meyer used to say that Alex Smith will only flourish once he feels 100% in control of an offense. The problem is that in the NFL you have to make a lot of throws where you're not 100% in control.
When you look at Harbaugh's greatest year, it's eerily similar to the year Alex Smith is having right now. It's actually pretty crazy how similar they are:
Harbaugh had a 100.7 Rating, 63.7% 170 yds/game 17 TDS 5 INT;
Alex Smith has a 97.3 Rating and projects to have 64.1% 183 yds/game 20 TDS and 4 INTS .
Sometimes, I wonder if Harbaugh even recognizes this shortcoming in Alex Smith since it seems to be one that he had himself (especially since Harbaugh had his most success when he played in this same super conservative manner). Both are really smart guys and seem to win games by finding the for sure throw, but the problem is that in a shoot-out you have to take more risks than that, and Alex needs to build the confidence to do so. I think our piss poor 3rd down conversion rate is proof of the need to improve in this area.
Alex Smith is a #1 draft pick, so he probably has more talent than Harbaugh did (though he was a 1st round pick, too). I say get him a sports psychiatrist, and help him develop the psychological confidence needed to take a few more risks during the easy part of our schedule. Otherwise, this may be as good as it gets on offense, which is sad because we have a sick amount of weapons (Davis, Walker, Crabtree, Edwards, Gore and even Hunter).
Either way, I'm proud of the strides he's made and wish him and our team the best.