Walcoff: Smith is improving, but he’s far from an elite passer

It was curious to hear Mike Singletary apologize for initially saying Alex Smith played poorly in Philadelphia on Sunday, then after looking at the game film claiming he feels very good about his quarterback’s progress.

Unfortunately, both are learning hard lessons in their first full year working together as head coach and starting quarterback.

Back in September, Singletary wanted an aggressive, ball-hawking defense, but season-ending injuries to both starting cornerbacks left the 49ers with a terrible secondary that only recently has begun to find its way. A shaky offensive line also undermined plans for a smash-mouth, run-first attack. So more by choice than design the 49ers became “Air Alex,” with predictably mixed results.

If all goes according to form Sunday at Candlestick, Smith will put up big numbers against the lowly Detroit Lions, likely improving his home record this season to 4-1.

However, on the road, he’s 0-4 when starting, and therein lies the rub. While the top overall pick in 2005 has shown remarkable resilience and determination in dealing with a two-year layoff due to shoulder injuries and San Francisco’s annual change of offensive coordinators, Smith is not yet an elite NFL passer. Without considerable personal improvement and a better supporting cast in 2010, the 49ers will be hard-pressed to end their seven-year playoff drought.

In case you haven’t noticed, now more than ever the NFL is a quarterback’s league. Check out the crop of QBs from the 20 teams still with Super Bowl hopes heading into the final two weeks of the regular season.

Division leaders: Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers, Tom Brady, Carson Palmer, Drew Brees, Brett Favre, Kurt Warner and Donovan McNabb.

Wild-card teams: Aaron Rodgers, Tony Romo, Kyle Orton and Joe Flacco.

Best of the rest: Eli Manning, Matt Ryan, Vince Young, Matt Schaub, Ben Roethlisberger and David Garrard. The only teams in the playoff hunt getting questionable quarterback play are the Dolphins’ Chad Henne (10 touchdowns, 12 interceptions) and the Jets rookie Mark Sanchez (12 touchdowns, 20 interceptions).

By most anyone’s account, Smith barely cracks the top 20. Lacking the elusiveness to extend plays with his legs and the arm strength to throw the deep ball when facing a posse of blitzing defenders, Smith relies on guile, grit and game smarts to carry the day. So far his play has been as inconsistent as his coach’s post-game assessments.

Here’s an idea for Singletary: Back off from the public endorsements of Smith, and give rookie Nate Davis a chance to play.

Competition could be a spark. Bill Walsh did it in January of 1988 when he benched a slumping Joe Montana in favor of Steve Young midway through a playoff loss to the Vikings. Young almost rallied the 49ers to victory and a Hall of Fame career was born. Who knew?

KGO (810 AM) Sports Director Rich Walcoff can be heard weekdays from 5 to 9 a.m. on the KGO morning news and is also the co-host of “Raiders Gameday” and “Recap” talk shows on KSFO (560 AM). He can be reached at RichWalcoff@gmail.com.

GAME DAY

49ers vs. Lions

WHEN: Sunday, 1:05 p.m.

WHERE: Candlestick Park

TV: Fox (KTVU, Ch. 2)

RADIO: KNBR (680 AM), KSAN (107.7 FM)

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