New and improved Alex Smith making San Francisco 49ers winners 

click to enlarge Niners quarterback Alex Smith has gone from being one of the biggest draft busts the NFL has ever seen to being a consistent signal-caller in the league, having thrown the fewest interceptions among starters. (AP file photo) - NINERS QUARTERBACK ALEX SMITH HAS GONE FROM BEING ONE OF THE BIGGEST DRAFT BUSTS THE NFL HAS EVER SEEN TO BEING A CONSISTENT SIGNAL-CALLER IN THE LEAGUE, HAVING THROWN THE FEWEST INTERCEPTIONS AMONG STARTERS. (AP FILE PHOTO)
  • Niners quarterback Alex Smith has gone from being one of the biggest draft busts the NFL has ever seen to being a consistent signal-caller in the league, having thrown the fewest interceptions among starters. (AP file photo)
  • Niners quarterback Alex Smith has gone from being one of the biggest draft busts the NFL has ever seen to being a consistent signal-caller in the league, having thrown the fewest interceptions among starters. (AP file photo)

Critics take note: As the Alex Smith redemption tour makes its way to the nation’s capital Sunday for the 49ers-Redskins game, San Francisco’s once favorite whipping boy is now the NFL’s eighth-rated passer. Who’da thunk it?

Seven billion people on the planet and only seven pro quarterbacks are playing better than Smith. Not only is Alex’s QB rating higher than 2010 playoff veterans Michael Vick, Matt Ryan, Jay Cutler, Joe Flacco, Mark Sanchez, Matt Hasselbeck and Philip Rivers, he has thrown fewer interceptions (2) than any starter in the league, including Aaron Rodgers (3). No doubt Jim Harbaugh’s support and innovative leadership has been the catalyst to Smith’s transformation, but not even Bill Walsh would have been able to make a winner out of Alex with those previoulsy flawed 49ers teams.

Funny what a maturing offensive line, the addition of a couple explosive playmakers and a revamped defensive secondary can do for a quarterback. Instead of scrambling for his life and playing catchup until the predictably bitter end, an unburdened Smith merely manages the game behind a ball-control offense and the league’s stingiest defense. It’s a winning formula that could very well see Harbaugh and Smith earn NFL Coach and Comeback Player of the Year honors.

-- Meanwhile, the Raiders can only hope Carson Palmer’s two-week crash course gets him up to speed. Although Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos should provide the perfect elixir for whatever is ailing the Silver and Black in Oakland on Sunday, there is plenty to be concerned about. Not only is Palmer’s readiness an issue, so is Darren McFadden’s tender right foot and Rolando McClain’s sprained left ankle. Throw in a banged-up secondary with a leaky run defense and Hue Jackson’s “building a bully” mantra is sounding more like an election year campaign promise.

-- A frustrated Jeff Tedford told me he is sticking with Zach Maynard as his starting quarterback against Washington State at AT&T Park on Saturday despite throwing four interceptions last week against UCLA. But the Cal coach said sophomore Allan Bridgford will get reps in practice and “we’ll see how the game plays out.” Tedford added, “while it needs to be competitive, Maynard needs to play through some things. Are we going to start from scratch with Bridgford? There’s growing pains there, too.” Sadly, Cal’s quarterback pains have lasted seven long seasons since Aaron Rodgers left.

-- Down on the Farm, there’s the incomparable Andrew Luck and the No. 4 Stanford Cardinal who take a 16-game winning streak into Oregon State on Saturday. Luck needs just 10 touchdown passes to break John Elway’s school record (76). Great quote from David Shaw on the Stanford website’s Heisman Trophy promo page: “Every game he does something that not many humans can do.”

As every coach knows, a little Luck goes a long way.

KGO (810 AM) Sports Director Rich Walcoff can be heard weekdays from 5 to 9 a.m. on the KGO morning news. He can be reached at RichWalcoff@gmail.com.

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