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2011 49ers Grades: Alex Smith

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Originally I was going to post this Alex Smith grade post on Friday, but given how much discussion there generally is about Alex Smith, it made more sense to move this to a Monday. I would imagine there will be a fairly drastic split in the vote. No player has more dominated discussion nor split opinion as wildly as Alex Smith.

As we have come to expect with Alex Smith, attempting to assess 2011 is no simple task. Following the 2010 season, few people expected Smith to return to the team in 2011. Even Smith all but said he was finished with the 49ers. And who could blame him or the franchise for deciding to go their separate ways.

The previous six years had been a roller coaster of emotion. After first year struggles following his selection as the number one overall pick, Alex Smith showed signs of progress in year two. Then Norv Turner went to San Diego and Alex Smith struggled to start the 2007 season. A shoulder injury ended his season prematurely and sidelined him through the 2008 season. In 2009, Shaun Hill began the season as the starting QB, but gave way to Alex in week seven against the Houston Texans. In 2010, the season was a mess from the start and the QB position had plenty of problems with Alex Smith and Troy Smith alternating as starters.

Enter Jim Harbaugh.

Shortly after Coach Harbaugh was hired, he took some time to meet with Alex Smith and see where his head was at and what the next step should be. Coach Harbaugh has said he liked what he saw with Smith, but he wanted to know if Alex wanted to right the ship, or if he was content wearing a ballcap as the backup QB somewhere else. He got the answer he wanted and Alex Smith was back once the lockout ended in the worst-kept secret of 2011.

It is hard to accurately describe Alex Smith's 2011 season in a few words. There remain drastically different opinions about Alex Smith. One extreme wants nothing to do with him and wish he would go away. The other extreme thinks he has the makings a very good quarterback. And then there is everybody in between. He is one player where few opinions would be the same about his potential or even how he performed in 2011.

He had highs like the dramatic fourth quarter comeback against the Saints, a dominant third quarter in the big comeback against the Eagles, and the fourth quarter comeback against Detroit. He had his share of lows as well, with struggles against the Giants, Cardinals and others. Part of the issue that has remained with Alex Smith is finding some manner of consistency. He has shown plenty of moments of brilliance, but stringing these moments together more frequently are needed to take that next step.

Part of the issue with assessing Alex Smith is figuring out the issues around him. There are plenty of times where it seems like Alex Smith is struggling to hit the broad side of a barn with a throw. There are plenty of other times where the receivers are dropping balls or there seem to be miscommunications on the routes.

In pass protection, Smith has had plenty of trouble behind an offensive line that can be incredibly up and down. Of course, Smith also appears less willing to unload a pass to avoid a sack if the exact right throw isn't there. He had so few turnovers, but he also did not take chances as frequently as many quarterbacks. That has as much to do with Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman's game-plan for the offense. As has been the case for the last seven years, it is never black and white when it comes to Alex Smith.

As the 49ers look ahead to 2012, they are still working on a new contract for Smith. I would imagine a new deal will include plenty of incentives and salary escalators. They need to see continued improvement from their quarterback if they are going to become a consistent playoff threat. They got some big plays from him in 2011, but the dominance of the defense and special teams were easily the biggest factors in the 49ers 2011 success. They can attempt to build for sustained brilliance from those two units, but getting more from the QB position, and the offense in general would really make life a whole lot easier!

Simply put, I saw a lot of good things from Alex Smith in 2011 and I love the rapport he has developed with Jim Harbaugh. Given the almost comically awful relationships he had with Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary, Coach Harbaugh could not have handled the situation any better. He gave Smith his support from day one and publicly never wavered. Coach Harbaugh had his own rocky path as a quarterback in the NFL and would seem to know how difficult it can be when there is this kind of pressure on a guy. It remains to be seen if that will be enough to get Alex Smith into a consistent enough manner of play, but year one was a strong step forward.

Alex Smith 2011 Highlights

  • Smith threw 17 TDs and just 6 INTs in 2011, setting the franchise record for fewest INTs in a season (min. 400 atts.). His INT pct. of 1.1 for the season ranked 1st in the NFL and 1st in franchise history (min. 400 atts.).
  • Led the 49ers to five 4th-qtr comebacks on the season, including four on the road. His 4 come-from-behind road victories tied the franchise record set by Joe Montana in 1989.
  • Registered his third career rushing touchdown vs. Seattle (9/11) and first since 12/14/06 at Seattle as he completed 15 of 20 passes (75.0 pct.) for 124 yds. with a 90.4 passer rating.
  • Had 179 passing yards and a perfect 158.3 passer rating in the third quarter at Phi. (10/2), marking the most passing yds. by him in any qtr. during his career. Helped lead 49ers to a 24-23 come-from-behind victory after trailing by 20 pts. in 3rd qtr. Engineered 3 TD drives (80, 77, 77) in 2nd half.
  • Named Samsung Next Level Player of the Week and tallied a QB rating of 127.2 vs. Tampa Bay (10/9), marking the first time in his career he recorded a QB rating of 100+ in consecutive games (112.1 at Philadelphia (10/2)). Threw 3 TDs on the day in 48-3 victory to deliver the 49ers most lopsided regular season victory since a 48-0 shutout of the Los Angeles Rams (12/27/87).
  • Smith's fourth down, six-yard touchdown pass to TE Delanie Walker at Detroit (10/16) gave the 49ers the game-winning touchdown with 1:51 left and the 25-19 victory over the previously unbeaten Lions.
  • Against Cleveland (10/30), Moved into 7th place in franchise history in QB rushing yards with 519 rushing yards, passing Frank Albert (505 yards)
  • Connected with 8 different receivers at Washington (11/6), completing 17 of 24 passes for 200 yds. and a TD for a 109.7 passer rating.
  • Completed 19 of 30 passes for 242 yards and rushed for 27 yards on six carries vs. NYG (11/13). Smith connected on a go-ahead, 4th-qtr. TD pass to TE Vernon Davis, followed by another completion to WR Michael Crabtree on the 2-point conversion to give San Francisco a 20-13 lead.
  • Engineereed 2 TDs and completed 20 of 38 passes for 267 yards versus Arz. (11/20). Threw his first TD on an 8-yd. hookup with WR Kyle Williams in the 3rd qtr. and struck again three minutes later with an 18-yard TD pass to TE Vernon Davis, giving the 49ers a 23-0 lead.
  • Completed 17 of 23 pass attempts for 274 yards, 2 TDs and a QB rating of 142.3 versus ST. louis (12/4), setting a new single-game career-high. He also registered TD passes of 52 yds. and 56 yds.
  • Led the offense to 2 red zone TDs in the second half versus PIttsburgh (12/19) and completed 18 of 31 passes and 1 TD in the 20-3 Monday night victory.
  • Tallied his fifth come-from-behind victory, 19-17 at Seattle (12/24), his fourth on the road. Smith tied QB Joe Montana for the most fourth quarter comebacks on the road in franchise history. Montana had four in 1989.
  • Completed 20 of 30 pass attempts for 213 yards, 1 TD and a QB rating of 98.7 at St. Louis (1/1). With 3,144 yards passing on the season, Smith recorded his first 3,000 yard passing season. He also scrambled for an eight yard touchdown run just before the second quarter.
  • Completed 24 of 42 attempts for 299 yards, three touchdowns and a QB rating of 103.2 versus New Orleans (1/14). He also registered a 28-yard touchdown run late in the fourth quarter. Down three points with just 1:32 to play in the game, Smith led the 49ers on a seven-play, 85-yard drive that was capped off by a 14-yard touchdown pass to TE Vernon Davis