If there were any lingering doubts after last season about 49ers quarterback Alex Smith’s ability to perform consistently and win games in the spotlight, he sent a clear message with a resounding win this past weekend at Lambeau Field: 2011 wasn’t a fluke.
Smith turned in one of the better games of his career in outdueling the Green Bay Packers’ Aaron Rodgers, and he put the Niners at the forefront of the list of Super Bowl contenders.
It’s a far cry from where Smith was during the 2011 preseason, when fans showered him with boos during an open practice at Candlestick Park.
But in roughly 12 months, Smith has gone from liability to stability.
Smith has now beaten Rodgers and Drew Brees — and nearly Eli Manning — in his past three games. And all three were under a tremendous spotlight. Two were playoff games, while the other was the pre-eminent game of Week 1 of the 2012 season.
In those three games, Smith threw seven touchdowns and no interceptions. Still, when pundits discuss the top quarterbacks in the game, Smith is always omitted. And to a point, it’s understandable.
After seven years of injuries and mediocrity, it’s hard to shed the label of underachiever attached to Smith, the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2005, prior to 2011.
He’s never been a Pro Bowler, he’s never thrown for more than 3,150 yards in a season and he’s never thrown for more than 18 touchdowns in a season.
But to say Smith has had to go through his share of adversity would be like saying San Francisco is foggy every now and then. Think of what Smith has had to endure in his Niners career: several serious injuries, a merry-go-round of offensive coordinators, the pursuit of Peyton Manning, underwhelming personnel surrounding him and coaches who were in way over their heads.
To stack the deck against Smith even more, he plays in San Francisco. Here, quarterbacks are held to a higher standard than the pope.
Joe Montana played here. Steve Young played here. They are two of the greatest men to ever take a snap in the NFL. And most importantly, both have Super Bowl trophies on their résumé.
The fact that Smith is still standing, let alone thriving, says volumes about his resolve.
The problem for Smith is when we measure quarterbacks today, it mostly centers on the gaudy statistics that Rodgers, Tom Brady and Brees fill the stat sheets with week in and week out.
But guess what? There’s more to playing quarterback in the NFL than stats. Ever heard of this thing called winning games?
And in his past 19 games, Smith has won 15 of them.
Now that he is backed by a fiery coach and talented supporting cast, Smith is poised for his best season yet. So regardless of whether he racks up massive stats or not, Smith should be included among the quarterbacks you can trust on the biggest stages the NFL has to offer.
He’s proven he belongs.