This question was presented to me by a good friend of mine, who is an avid Bears fan. He seemingly didn't understand the progression Alex had made in such a short period of time and argued that much of the credit should be ultimately be given to the coaching staff. That his improved play is solely based on the nurturing of Jim Harbaugh and a conscious effort to put Alex in low risk situations. But is that really true?
The statistics & the eye ball test will tell you that the 2011 season was the best season Alex Smith has had as a professional, having career highs in Completion % (61.3), Yards (3,144), Yards per Pass (7.07), TD-to-INT ratio (17-to-5 or 3.4), QBR (45.8) & a QB rating of (90.7). Eventually leading the team to a 13-3 record with a now legendary game in the division series against the Saints and a birth in the NFC Championship game where the team came close to earning a birth in the Superbowl.
And with just 5 games into the 2012 NFL season Alex is on pace to eclipse each of those statistics as he is having the best start to a season in his 7 year career.
The argument has been presented that Coach Harbaugh and his staff suddenly turned Alex Smith into a competent NFL QB & before Coach Harbaugh took the reigns of the franchise Alex Smith was a complete bust. But if you look at the statistics that argument does not hold water.
Year CMP Yards AVG TDs INTs QBR RAT Games
2009 60.5 2,350 6.32 18 12 40.2 81.5 11
2010 59.6 2,370 6.93 14 10 40.1 82.1 11
2011 61.3 3,144 7.07 17 5 45.8 90.7 16
2012 68.6 1,085 7.93 8 1 81.9 108.7 5
As the statistics show in each of the last 4 seasons Alex has steadily improved his numbers and with missing 10 games in the (pre-Harbaugh) 09' & 10's seasons due to injuries we will never know what kind of seasons he could have ended up with. The 2010 season being especially brutal as the team was in contention for a playoff birth going into the last 2 weeks of the season.
Has Jim Harbaugh been a crucial factor in the rise of "The Phoenix", as he has been called by the local media and some of his teammates? Without a doubt, but the truth is that outside of the Bay Area the national media has not given Alex Smith the credit he deserves. Had he lived up to his draft status? I think we can all safely state that he hadn't but he was never truly a bust and his play this last year & a half should not discredited as solely based on the additions of Jim Harbaugh, Geep Chryst & Greg Roman as coaches.
When I think of Alex and his development as a pro QB, I look to a quote from his college coach, Urban Meyer. He stated that:
"It's going to be interesting in San Francisco," Meyer said. "Alex is an extremely quick learner. However, he's a guy that, until he understands it, he is nonfunctional. He is a guy that -- I keep hearing how Brett Favre kind of makes something out of nothing and is a person that runs around to make a play -- Alex Smith is not that kind of player. Alex Smith is a person that, once he is taught, has to learn it all. He might struggle early, but once he gets it, he gets it."
"I'm going to be anxious to watch his development with the 49ers. Alex is so careful with the ball. His touchdown-to-interception ratio the last 2 years was phenomenal (47 touchdowns and seven interceptions). That's because, unless he knows exactly what's going on, he won't throw it. He won't just try to guess and take a shot. He has to know.
"That's why, early in his career, and early in our career with him at Utah, he was not an effective passer, because he really didn't understand. Once he understood, there was no one better. He learns quickly, though. But he's not a guy that you throw the ball out there and tell him, 'Go play.' He wants to know what is exactly expected of him and then he becomes a dynamite player.
Alex through his hard work, perseverance, dedication & ambition has turned what was once considered a failed career into possibly a Pro Bowl season on a legitimate Super Bowl contender. Through the various interviews he had over the years you could see the transformation of a kid who early in his career believed that he had to make every throw perfect and had to live up to being the overall #1 pick in a draft to a grown man with a loving wife and child who now understands that all he has to do play within himself and not be someone he is not and he can fulfill everyone of the professional desires.
So to answer the question "When Did Alex Smith Get So Good"? well the truth is that he was not an overnight success. And the trials & tribulations he has had to endure as an NFL QB turned a kid into a grown man and a grown man into a possible Pro Bowl candidate & potentially Super Bowl winner.