49ers Vs. Giants: Defining 'Elite Quarterback'

49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh chatted with the media today and made an interesting comment about the quarterbacks in play this Sunday. Early in the discussion he was talking about the Giants victory over the Patriots and he described Eli Manning as a "very good, elite quarterback." Later in the discussion he was talking about Alex Smith and said:

I respected him as a player. I think people that know football and understand the game appreciate Alex Smith as a very talented quarterback. He's every bit the elite quarterback as there is playing in the game right now. Appreciate all the talent that he has and what he brings to our team.

Coach Harbaugh is generally a very complimentary guy when it comes to describing Alex Smith, and also when it comes to describing upcoming opponents. I would say Alex Smith has proven "elite" at avoiding interceptions this season, but otherwise there really isn't a whole lot that needs to be taken from his comments to the media. I will say it reminded me of the ugly baby episode of Seinfeld. For those who haven't seen it, a doctor Elaine is interested in describes her as breathtaking and then uses the same word to describe a baby that the four of them view as ugly. That's not to say I think Alex Smith is an ugly baby, but hopefully you get the point.

Over the course of the last ten months, Jim Harbaugh has been effusive in his praise of Alex Smith. He says he had never met him prior to becoming 49ers head coach, but he has praised him at every turn. While some will question Alex Smith's status as an "elite quarterback", he has played a solid role in the 49ers offense thus far. Has the praise from Harbaugh been a key part of that? Or has simply working with the former QB been the difference, and the praise is just window-dressing? There have been plenty of questions about Alex Smith's psyche over the last six years, so maybe this kind of praise does help buil him up even more.

Head Coach Jim Harbaugh
Press Conference - November 9, 2011
San Francisco 49ers

Listen to Audio I Media Center

Do you place any added significance on this game because there could be playoff implications down the road as far as seeding?

"There's great significance to this game. The biggest thing is it's the next game. That always makes it the most important game."

What was impressive to you about their win on Sunday against the Patriots?

"So many things. What a good football team they have. How well they play on the defensive front, same with the offensive line. Just a really good team in the lines. Very good, elite quarterback and the skill position at receivers and backs, outstanding. Just across the board, linebackers, secondary, it's an outstanding football team. Very good at special teams, very disciplined team, very physical team. They play well together." 

How does it affect your preparation not knowing whether Giants WR Hakeem Nicks or Giants RB Ahmad Bradshaw will play?

"We'll prepare like they'll play. We'll prepare like their backups will play as well, you can only do it that way." 

David Baas, their center, took part in a player workout that QB Alex Smith ran in June, had exposure to the playbook that you had given Alex at that point. Is that a concern at this point? Would that give him any extra insight that they couldn't get from watching game film and things like that?

"I don't think so. There are eight games on tape that I'm sure they have a good idea of what we do offensively." 

Verbiage in that wouldn't be a factor, just knowing what he called plays and things like that?

"David won't be in the huddle prior to the snap. I really don't think that would be. I think they have what they have on tape and that's the bulk of what they'll go off of." 

You spoke of the progress that Alex has made. You've obviously done what a coach should do, blocking schemes and everything. Before this year, did you ever have any contact with him when you were still in the NFL and did you know much about him or just watching films and just reading and listening to people?

"No, I had not met Alex Smith until I got the job here." 

So all the stuff floating through the air, you don't pay any attention to that do you? The stuff like ‘he can't play' etc.

"I was looking in through the keyhole, so to speak. I respected him as a player. I think people that know football and understand the game appreciate Alex Smith as a very talented quarterback. He's every bit the elite quarterback as there is playing in the game right now. Appreciate all the talent that he has and what he brings to our team." 

By saying that he is one of the elite quarterbacks, if you look at his fourth quarter performances this season is that part of the evidence? Why?

"Again, it's a whole body of work. There's evidence... really however you want to pick his performance apart. He's playing at a very high level." 

Is RB Frank Gore's ankle at a point where you feel like he won't be limited this week? Has he shown some improvement on it?

"I'm not in Frank's skin, never am, and that's always the hard thing when everybody asks me, ‘How Frank is going to be this afternoon at practice? How's he going to be on Sunday?' It's just hard to predict how somebody else is going to feel exactly with any accuracy." 

Has the training staff given you an update on Frank's ankle that gives you any kind of feeling of where he's at?

"I feel good. I feel good from what Frank has said and that he should be healthy to practice today, we anticipate that, and we'll go from there." 

I think he's on pace for the most carries he's ever had in his career. As we go into the second half of the season, are you more cognoscente or careful of giving him fewer carries as the year goes on?

"Cognoscente of it? Yes." 

Are the additional carries more a factor of you guys having leads late in the game and your salting out games?

"That has been a factor. It's an obvious one. We've had some leads in the fourth quarter, third quarter where you have to run the ball more. Throwing it every down when you're down two or three scores." 

K David Akers, how impressive has he been over his first eight games?

"David has been darn near perfect, that's how impressive he's been. I can't imagine there's any kicker that's bringing more to their team than David Akers is this year. Look at the touchbacks, look at the field goals, the degree of difficulty on these field goals, 50-plus, 40-plus. He's dealt with the wind here in Candlestick, he's kicked such a straight, true ball that the elements haven't been a factor. He's been rock solid on pressure kicks. You factor that degree of difficulty in and he's been darn near perfect." 

Did you know his leg was this strong? He's nailed four field goals over 50 and he's gotten all these touchbacks. Did you know he was coming with that much power?

"We felt like he was the best kicker in the game and he's delivered on that." 

In the game Sunday, there were several times where you guys had late shifts in the play clock and it seemed sort of rushed. Was it rushed or was that by design to have those shifts so late?

"Sometimes they're designed that way, sometimes you get the look late and make the adjustment." 

Is there ever a downside to having such a good kicker or a kicker you trust so implicitly that once you get in between the 40 and the 25 yard lines, subconsciously you're not as aggressive as you would be if you didn't trust him as much?

"No. I don't think there's a downside to having a good kicker." 

T/G Chilo Rachal and CB Shawntae Spencer, those are guys who were regular starters here the past couple of years. Obviously, they're not in those roles this season. From your point or perspective, how have they handled their new roles this season?

"They've really been team guys, especially Chilo. I really have to take my hat off to him. He is really chomping at the bit to be in there, after practice, before practice. Really on point. His time will come again and he plays and contributes for us in our extra O-linemen package, he's on field goal, he's on kickoff return. He's preparing like a starter and that's how we think of him. Especially pleased with him." 

You had said on the radio the other day that you have a new play this week. When you unveiled the name of that play to your offensive team, what was the reaction?

"They knew. Got a chuckle from the fellas." 

Was that your idea to institute that name?

"When we were at Arlington (National Cemetery) and Sergeant Skywalker just finished up talking to the team, he shared about 10 minutes worth of comments with the team. On the history of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. When he was done, [Wide Receivers Coach] Johnnie Morton and I looked at each other and go ‘we need a skywalker' and it's got to be good, it's got to be a good one, a good play." 

He'll be on the sideline for the Baltimore game?

"Yes." 

Will you have a chance to watch Stanford vs. Oregon on Saturday night?

"Should be able to. We have meetings on Saturday night, but we'll have the TV on." 

Who do you like?

"I like Stanford." 

It seems like the offense, other than the one 30-yard touchdown pass to Bruce Miller, hasn't had that quick strike ability that we saw in Philadelphia or Tampa Bay. Game plan can determine that. Is there anything in particular as to why over these past two games  (inaudible)?

"No, not one thing. We'll just keep working on our quick strike ability and see if we can't get that better." 

But has it been not a concern or something you've been looking at?

"Yeah we're trying to improve in all areas, see where the heck we can get a mile an hour faster and a percent better each day. That's the way we go about things, that's the way our players go about them." 

What's the challenges of facing the Giants front four? What makes them so good?

"They are just fast, physical, up-field, strong men. Just strong people, that are very athletic. That's a formidable combination. Our line is good, too. We've got a good offensive line. That's going to be two opposing wills that are going to be meeting each other in this ball game and it will be outstanding to watch our guys compete in that kind of environment." 

Are they the most talented team you've played thus far?

"Don't make a lot of comparisons from one team to the other. This is the most important game because it's the next game. Expectations are we'll have a great day of meetings and practice in preparation for this big game."

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