Jim Harbaugh: Alex Smith Is A Pro Bowl QB, Long Term Answer For 49ers

49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh apparently has decided we do not talk about QB Alex Smith nearly enough at Niners Nation. It is such a passe topic that he needed to stir up the hornets nest a bit. Immediately following Monday's defeat of the PIttsburgh Steelers, Coach Harbaugh told the assembled media "There's no doubt in my mind that [Alex Smith] deserves to go to the Pro Bowl."

He was asked about that once again on Tuesday and he had a bit more to say on the topic. His Monday comment came during a mix of comments about the game and I'm guessing the media didn't quite pick up on the Pro Bowl comment. However, they did follow up on Tuesday and Coach Harbaugh had plenty to say about it:

You mentioned last night that Alex is a Pro Bowl quarterback. Do you trust that the coaches and players who vote won't be swayed by the huge passing numbers or the number of touchdowns and look at the things that you just brought up?

"It's possible. That's the low hanging fruit. Just go right to the yardage line or the touchdown passes line. I think people that understand football understand that there's a lot more that goes into the job of a quarterback than those statistics. Whenever a player is just thinking about statistics, whether it be sacks or yardage, those kind of agendas, interceptions, it can often hurt the team. We'll see. There are other great players out there in the National Football League. I believe there are three that go to the Pro Bowl, right? [Green Bay QB] Aaron Rogers, [Saints QB] Drew Brees, Alex Smith. I think those are the top-3 in the NFC in my humble opinion."

Why are you bringing up Pro Bowl now? You've got the rest of the season to go, why is this important to you at this time?

"There's a body of work under him. The thing that is important to us is the team. But I also think there are individual efforts that need to be highlighted. So that's why. There's other guys. [DT] Justin Smith, I believe, is our most valuable player. He had a great game in this football game. Did a lot of things really well. Kicked ass. That's basically what the guy did. He's been doing it all year. [LB] Aldon Smith had a terrific game. Great pressure rushing. Aldon's really separated himself as a pass rusher, first-year player in this league. Also, Justin on a lot of those stunts, he's beating up blockers and Aldon comes around and does a great job beating the center in this particular game. There's a lot of individual play that I think just needs to be highlighted. That's why I bring it up."

None of us can say with any measure of certainty why Coach Harbaugh does the things he does and says the things he says. We can speculate that he is just continuing to show his support for his quarterback. I think it goes beyond getting caught up in the moment because he did have a night to sleep on it, or at least think about it (he looked like a man who had not slept since the game).

Lowell Cohn jumped all over the Pro Bowl comments to point out why Alex Smith is not a Pro Bowl quarterback. I am perfectly fine with that kind of article because it doesn't take a rocket scientist to make that argument. That is the real "low hanging fruit."

However, one part of Cohn's article did not make logical sense in my mind:

I would like to point out something else. On Monday, Harbaugh said Justin Smith is the most valuable player on the 49ers. Justin Smith is a defensive lineman. If Alex Smith, a quarterback, is not even the MVP of the Niners, how is he a Pro Bowler?

This has nothing to do with what you think of Alex Smith as a player. Rather, if you read that rhetorical question at the end, am I the only one who sees the logical fallacy of that? Given that multiple players from a team can make a Pro Bowl, does that question even make sense? Lowell's question would infer that Justin Smith is the only player worthy of the Pro Bowl. I suppose if that is the argument then it makes sense. But if Lowell thinks guys like Carlos Rogers and Andy Lee and David Akers, among many others, are not worthy of the Pro Bowl, that is a whole other argument entirely.

For the purposes of this post, we don't need another over the top Alex Smith discussion. However, I do think it is noteworthy to bring up what Harbaugh said immediately after the Pro Bowl discussion:

Do you think that Alex is the long-term quarterback for the 49ers as the starter?

"I do."

In reality, until any sort of contract is signed and until we get into next training camp, all we have are some comments to a media group with which Coach Harbaugh has a sometimes contentious relationship. This might qualify as one of the clearest answers to any question he has received in the last four or five months.

It is almost hard to figure out what to do with it given the very black and white nature of the answer. Although, he couldn't really say "No he isn't the long term answer" and it is hard to spin that away. I think Coach Harbaugh thinks Smith could be that answer, but I also don't think Coach Harbaugh will lock himself into any specifics he states to the media.

Head Coach Jim Harbaugh
Press Conference - December 20, 2011
San Francisco 49ers

Listen to Audio I Media Center

Opening Statement:

"Good to see everybody today. Happy with the win last night. Thought our team really played good football. That's what you have to do against a very good football team like the Pittsburgh Steelers. We're faced with a short turnaround and on to Seattle. Finding a way to win this game."

In retrospect, how much of an advantage or how much did it help your offensive line prepare for last night's game by facing the Cardinals the week before?

"Well, there are some things that we had to get fixed. I thought our offensive line, it really starts there in terms of offense. Thought the protection was outstanding. [Offensive Line Coaches] Mike Solari, Tim Drevno did a great job with that unit. They responded. They rose to the occasion. That was well-played up front. The pads stayed square. Protection was terrific all night."

What is the plan for this week, for the short week? How much will the players practice, meetings, that type of thing?

"They're off today. We'll meet and practice Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday."

The way you guys have dominated in the turnover differential department all season long, it's really rung true with QB Alex Smith. Is that something that you harped on with Alex from day one? And has it continued every week since then?

"Coached it. Alex has a great understanding. Veteran player. Experienced player who understands situational football and good football and the difference between holding onto the ball and turning it over. He's also been uncanny in the pocket. If he's been hit or sacked, not giving up the sack fumble. The big momentum turnover that can lead to a change in field position, put point on the board for the opposition. Change the field position easy. He's been outstanding in that regard."

How do you coach that? You can't do a drill where you have a guy not fumble and be sacked? How do you coach a guy not to give up a sack fumble? How do you do that?

"There's really, like you point out, there's no dramatic drill work that you can do. I think it's his understanding, first of all. Take care of the football. His experience. Understanding to clutch the ball when there's pressure around you, get two hands on it in the pocket. Good fundamentals. I think also, going back to situational football, there are some people that are just concerned with statistics. You've got to have a 300-yard passing game. You have to take your play to the next level. For quarterbacks, that comes a lot because they're judged on yards thrown or touchdowns thrown. A consummate team player understands that that's not how we're measured at quarterback. The only statistic really that matters is winning. That's a way that his understanding and coaching it, that mentality, I think is important."

You mentioned last night that Alex is a Pro Bowl quarterback. Do you trust that the coaches and players who vote won't be swayed by the huge passing numbers or the number of touchdowns and look at the things that you just brought up?

"It's possible. That's the low hanging fruit. Just go right to the yardage line or the touchdown passes line. I think people that understand football understand that there's a lot more that goes into the job of a quarterback than those statistics. Whenever a player is just thinking about statistics, whether it be sacks or yardage, those kind of agendas, interceptions, it can often hurt the team. We'll see. There are other great players out there in the National Football League. I believe there are three that go to the Pro Bowl, right? [Green Bay QB] Aaron Rogers, [Saints QB] Drew Brees, Alex Smith. I think those are the top-3 in the NFC in my humble opinion."

Why are you bringing up Pro Bowl now? You've got the rest of the season to go, why is this important to you at this time?

"There's a body of work under him. The thing that is important to us is the team. But I also think there are individual efforts that need to be highlighted. So that's why. There's other guys. [DT] Justin Smith, I believe, is our most valuable player. He had a great game in this football game. Did a lot of things really well. Kicked ass. That's basically what the guy did. He's been doing it all year. [LB] Aldon Smith had a terrific game. Great pressure rushing. Aldon's really separated himself as a pass rusher, first-year player in this league. Also, Justin on a lot of those stunts, he's beating up blockers and Aldon comes around and does a great job beating the center in this particular game. There's a lot of individual play that I think just needs to be highlighted. That's why I bring it up."

Do you think that Alex is the long-term quarterback for the 49ers as the starter?

"I do."

[LB] Larry Grant has played really well with [LB] Patrick Willis out. Have you thought about, are there different ways you're going to look to get him involved when Willis comes back? Are there other ways to get Larry Grant on the field more than he had been before the last few weeks?

"Larry played very well in this game. Especially early. I thought he made some real statement plays early in the ball game. Tackled well. [LB] NaVorro Bowman also played very well. Again, good team defense. Larry's an outstanding football player. To answer your question, yeah, you try to find ways to get your best players on the field. He's playing at a very high level. Also, [DT] Ray McDonald, [NT] Isaac Sopoaga were very good up front in this game. Really, also need to highlight the play of the secondary. There was some yardage given up, but the way our secondary played was really good. [CB] Tarell Brown, in particular. Great coverage. Also, came up with the ball. [CB] Carlos Rogers, again, really good coverage. Comes up with the ball. [S] Dashon Goldson made a great interception. Made a great play on the ball. It was just an outstanding game from a coverage standpoint. The receivers from the Pittsburgh Steelers are fast, quick men. [Mike Wallace] 17, I believe, is the fastest player in the NFL. The fact that he runs as fast as he does when he gets loose, it's a nightmare to bring down. Our guys did a great job covering those receivers. Ed Donatell, our secondary coach, is something that another person's individual effort that needs to be highlighted. He's done a great job with our secondary this year."

In 1981, the 49ers went into Pittsburgh and beat them. It was a big, big win for that team that didn't know how good it was. Standing outside the locker room, I could hear them cheering like a high school team. The game meant something to them. It told them ‘we're a good team; we might be able to win a Super Bowl.' This is a big win you had last night. In addition to being a win, is it a game that is a marker game that tells you we're at a certain level, we're at a certain standard? Does it also mean that?

"For us, the expectations are to have a good day today. Have a great week at practice this week. Do everything we can do to win the next game. That's as far as we want to go with expectations, markers, statements. Where this team has been, practicing together, learning together, fighting for each other on any given Sunday afternoon for three hours and becoming a team. That mentality of just trying to improve, just trying to get better, is kind of where we leave our expectations."

You lead the league in turnovers, the turnover battle, I understand. Can you put it in your evaluation, just the remarkability factor that this defense has been able to get four turnovers against Pittsburgh, three against Arizona, continues to get multiple turnovers in a game. Where does that rate with you?

"It rates way up there. You want to play winning defense. As a unit, our defense, when they can get turnovers for us, when they can get stops, three-and-outs, all that rates really way up there in terms of winning defense."

I guess what I'm looking for...

"What're you looking for? Tell me what you're looking for. Tell me where you can plug me in you article. Save ourselves all a lot of time. Right?"

I know that you said you don't want to set expectations, but the fact that you've been able to do that and not even...it's four per game.

"It's outstanding. It's just awesome. A lot of that, you talk about the ability of the players. The coaching. The job [Defensive Coordinator] Vic Fangio's doing, all of our defense coaches. The pressure that you get up front. Again, Justin Smith, he's just always, play after play, kicking ass, for lack of a better term. Secondary comes up with the football. You get tight coverage and still make plays on the ball. They get you the ball. They're doing a great job."

You're a student of football history. What do you know about the 1920 Decatur Staleys? They're the last team to...

"Became the Chicago Bears. I know one thing."

Did your dad know George Halas?

"Did my dad know Halas? I don't think he knew him."

That was the last team to go 13 games without giving up a rushing touchdown. More seriously, did you see this defense...

"When did forward pass come in? Probably a little bit after that, right? Prior to the forward pass, it really makes it that much more remarkable. It's something to talk about. It's remarkable in the fact that people would talk about it. It's a remarkable thing. We don't talk about it a lot here, but I still feel like our guys take a lot of pride in that. It's pretty amazing."

Did you see your defense being that kind of defense, that would be able to stop the rushing touchdowns? When you put together this defense at the start of the season? Or was that something that just evolved?

"It's a big goal to stop the run. You don't set up on your goal board at the beginning of the year to not allow a rushing touchdown for the first 14 games of the season. You want to be good against the run, you want to stop the run. Our team has been doing that. Some 30-some games since there's been a 100-yard rusher. That's another benchmark standard that I've read about. Again, it's a credit to the guys that are up front. Isaac Sopoaga, he's on the nose. He's taking up blocks. The way our linebackers have played all season. Whether it's been Patrick and NaVorro or Larry Grant comes in, it's just 49ers defense. You don't play great defense without really good secondary play. Our outside backers have done a tremendous job, too. It's been really good team defense. To answer your question, that's where it starts. That's where you want to hang your hat. You want to be able to stop the run."

When you evaluated Aldon Smith, and maybe even now, did you ever notice like a next gear? Something that enables him to just get to the quarterback, being close to the quarterback and then closing quickly. Sort of like a quick strike? Does he have a quick twitch that enables him to get there so quickly?

"There are some unique things that we saw when we were first evaluating him. The fact that he could athletically avoid defenders in tight spaces, especially inside the tackles. He showed that at Missouri. The other thing was that he was always on his feet. He always played on his feet. He was rarely off his feet. Even when he was knocked off his feet, he had a way of stopping himself just short of hitting the ground of popping back up like a spring. He's got some real gifts of God. I think, really over the last six, seven, eight weeks, Aldon has really bought in to Coach Fangio's scheme. I see them having a great working relationship. Just keep coming along. Just keep getting better."

Do you think he surprises people with his inside move and strength? Maybe when they look at him, they see a tall guy, lean and just think of him as a speed rusher on the outside and he kind of surprises people going as many sacks as he does.?

"He does. He does a great job coming off of the stunt. Starts up the field then loops back inside. He's getting a great lane from Ray and from Justin. Those guys are really, when you dissect what's happening, those two guys are doing a tremendous job. A lot of credit to Aldon, too. He comes in and is able to beat the defender in a very tight space. Athletically, contort his body in split-second decisions. He's getting a lot of credit for that and deservedly so."

I think a lot of fans see what he does and say why isn't this guy starting, why isn't he playing all three downs? I guess the question is, would he be able to do what he's doing this year if he was a three-down player? Does the fact that he comes in on specific plays allow him to be the player that he is this year?

"I trust in what Vic and [Defensive Line Coach] Jim Tomsula and the defensive staff is doing. We got a lot of other good players, too, like Justin. Again, I'm going to say it again; I think he is the most valuable player on our team. [LB] Parys [Haralson] is doing a nice job. [LB] Ahmad Brooks has played outstanding football. Already close to double the amount of snaps that Ahmad Brooks has had in an entire career, this season. I think he's somewhere around the mid-400s coming into this season and he's up close to the mid-700s now."

This may sound sort of like a hockey question, but I don't intend it that way, but Patrick Willis just told us he was surprised to see Aldon making these sacks with his mouthpiece in his sock and that's pretty gutsy to not protect your teeth. We've heard Justin Smith has chipped his teeth multiple times during a season. What does that say about the no fear aspect of these guys if they're not even wearing mouthpieces when they're doing this stuff?

"I don't see a lot of fear out there in any of these guys."

Is that unique to you?

"I tell you what. I'll keep a sharper eye on that, and make sure that Aldon has his mouthpiece in his mouth and not in his sock."

It was just an interesting thing. Patrick was surprised by it.

"I'll keep a sharper eye. I'll make sure Aldon gets his mouthpiece in his mouth."

What do you think about the light's going out last night during the game? Didn't seem to affect you guys.

"I don't know how much it did or didn't affect our guys. It was a surprise. Everybody was calm. From the players and coaches, just rolled with it. Also, I was impressed with the fans in the stadium, too. Lights go out and I thought they kept their composure. Remained calm and let it get worked out."

Why did you feel that WR Ted Ginn, WR Michael Crabtree, and WR Kyle Williams gave you the better chance to win and having WR Braylon Edwards inactive?

"Just based on the practices and the games."

Are you looking to add to the wide receiver corps this week?

"We'll see with Ted. Braylon should be ready to go. We'll look for a good week of practice there."

Do you think Ginn's injury is long-term?

"I don't know, we'll see."

TE Vernon Davis last night, he kind of developed throughout the season and learned to beat the double team. Could you talk a little bit about his game last night?

"Yeah, made the big play. Especially on the big drive. We had a big drive in the game where we had to respond. It was 6-3. Alex made a heck of a throw and Vernon beat the man to man coverage. Really adjusted nicely to the ball. And there was safety help over the top. You call that double coverage or not, it's really single coverage with help. It was a heck of a route, great adjustment on the ball. Great throw by Alex. Came back after a penalty and hit the big screen pass to [RB] Kendall Hunter, which was a big play in the game. Then, immediately Greg Roman called the Y-hide screen to Vernon and another really good throw, transcontinental across the field. Again, Vernon makes the nice over the shoulder catch. A real strength play, in what I thought got him into the end zone, that was taken off the board. Thought Vernon did a nice job composing himself and coming back the next play, executing the touchdown reception. He made some tough catches over the middle as he always does. He's a threat every time he gets the ball in his hands. Also did a nice job blocking in this game, a physical presence there. [TE] Delanie Walker is another guy to highlight in terms of really setting the tone physically, in terms of blocking. He had a great cut block early in the game on their middle linebacker. Heels up into the air kind of block. Another physical, rattle-their-fillings block about two plays later. Then made a great tackle on the special teams."

After those first two field goals, were you still concerned about your production in the red zone?

"I was happy about the way our team moved the ball. Put drives together and responded. We were attacking. Pittsburgh's a heck of a defense. We had our opportunities and then finally cashed in on them. Those were big scoring drives in the red zone."

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