NFL Playoffs 2012: Alex Smith Is the Most Underrated Player in the NFL

Jesse ReedCorrespondent IJanuary 18, 2012

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - JANUARY 14:  Alex Smith #11 of the San Francisco 49ers celebrates his touchdown with teammates in the fourth quarter against the New Orleans Saints during the NFC Divisional playoff game at Candlestick Park on January 14, 2012 in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Alex Smith is the most underrated player in the NFL, bar none. Nobody but 49ers fans believe Smith is capable of carrying the 49ers on his back, and many casual fans still don't.

Never mind that he is about to play the NFC Championship Game in front of his home crowd, less than a year after he was booed off the field.

Never mind that Smith led the 49ers to five fourth-quarter comeback wins in the regular season. Never mind that he did it again in the divisional game...twice. 

Smith proved he could go toe-to-toe against anyone when he matched Drew Brees in the divisional round. He never backed down, and when the chips were down he just got better.

People are saying that the Saints defense was terrible. Whatever. They had been doing just fine with the same strategy and had beaten teams like the Detroit Lions (twice), Carolina Panthers, and the Atlanta Falcons (twice) during their impressive late-season winning streak.

None of those quarterbacks could out-duel Brees.

Hold on. Wait a tick. Do you mean to tell me that Alex Smith was able to do what Matthew Stafford (twice), Cam Newton, and Matt Ryan (twice) couldn't do?

I'm sure it was just a freak one-time accident of fate, right? Wrong. Smith has been doing this all year long when his team needed it. 

He did it the first time in Cincinnati in Week 3 against the Bengals. Until the final minutes of the game, it had been a defensive struggle. Smith led the 49ers on a game-winning drive, completing 4 of 5 passes for 48 yards on a 10-play, 72-yard drive for the decisive score.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - OCTOBER 02: Head coach Jim Harbaugh of the San Francisco 49ers talks with quarterback Alex Smith #11during a timeout against the Philadelphia Eagles during an NFL football game at Lincoln Financial Field on October 2, 2011 in Philadelph
Rich Schultz/Getty Images

The very next week, he did it again on the road against the Philadelphia Eagles (before they sucked). The Eagles had busted out with a 23-3 lead, and all hope seemed to be lost. Then the 49ers opened up the playbook for Smith. He torched the Eagles secondary in two consecutive drives, going 6/6 for 140 yards and two touchdowns in the process. Frank Gore ended up with the game-winning score in that game, but I think you see where I'm going here.

In another big road test at Detroit, Smith and Delanie Walker beat the Lions with a fourth-down, last-second touchdown pass on a slant route that resembled the game-winner in the divisional round to Vernon Davis.

Smith also beat the New York Giants at home and the Seattle Seahawks on the road in similar fashion.

When the 49ers needed him to pass, Smith came through. 

People need to understand that Smith's stats are the way they are because the 49ers are the most balanced team in the NFL. They didn't need him to pass as much as other teams. They asked him to make outstanding decisions and take care of the football. There was no need to "let it loose."

Jim Harbaugh wants to control the clock. He wants to keep his ferocious defense well-rested and ready to attack. He wants Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter to gobble up yards and move the chains.

People have wrongly assumed all year long that Harbaugh was doing it because Smith was unable to do the things a franchise quarterback should be able to do. 

He has proved that he is more than capable of leading his team to victory when the game is on the line and the only way to win is by passing the ball. He may not have an arm like Aaron Rodgers, but he's no slouch. Smith's last throw to win the game against the Saints looked like a Nolan Ryan fastball.

Smith didn't get the big numbers of some of the "elite" quarterbacks in this league, but his team is one step away from Super Bowl XLVI. If they get there, it won't be in spite of him, but because of him.