Alex Smith proved this last season that he should never be labeled a "bust" again. But did Smith show enough to the franchise and the fans that he can be the quarterback capable of bringing them to the promised land?
Smith was solid for the 49ers all season long. He didn't commit turnovers, rarely got rattled and managed the offense efficiently. Considering what was expected of him, Smith overachieved.
Critics wondered what the 49ers would do when the team was down late in the game and needed to score. In the NFC Divisional round against the New Orleans Saints, Smith drove the 49ers twice down the field, leading them to victory.
Smith has become a good NFL starter, but I still have doubts that he's the "answer" at quarterback for the 49ers. While he made huge strides as a player last season, he still has his limitations. His limitations could hold the 49ers back from becoming a yearly powerhouse like the Steelers or Patriots.
Here are three reasons why I believe Smith will never be the 49ers' answer at quarterback:
There's no doubt that Smith made strides as a player last season. He threw a league-low five interceptions for the most consistent week-to-week team in the NFL.
Smith's low interception total may have more to do with head coach Jim Harbaugh's game plan than it did with Smith's improvement as a player. Smith threw the fewest passes of any quarterback who started all 16 games. He also threw the second fewest third-down passes.
As NFLFilms.com's Greg Cosell pointed out, that was not by accident. Harbaugh recognized Smith's limitations as a quarterback, and game planned around him.
With the 49ers' elite defense, strong running game and stellar kicking game, Smith rarely had to play out of his element.
It may be a slap in the face to label a Smith as a "game manager." But you can't call him anything more than that at this point. Against the Seattle Seahawks late in the season and in the playoffs against the Saints, Smith proved he has what it takes to drive the team down the field late. Yet he's also shown he's incapable of throwing the ball efficiently game-to-game.
If he were a better passer, Harbaugh would have shown more trust in his abilities to throw on third down instead of settling for field goals.
Smith is no longer a bust, but it's hard to believe that he will ever be able to develop into the kind of quarterback who can stretch the field and comfortably throw the ball consistently week-to-week.
Smith's limitation prevented the 49ers from throwing the ball effectively all season. This is a large reason why the 49ers were such a bad red-zone team. There were a lot of times when Harbaugh would call a run on 3rd-and-long instead of passing the ball to try to get a first down.
Harbaugh played it safe to keep Smith from harming the team, settling for a field goals instead of the risk of committing a turnover.
Before last season, I thought Smith was a lost cause. He proved me wrong. I could not have been happier for him after he led the game-winning drive against the Saints in the playoffs. Watching sports is the best when the unexpected happens. Nothing is better than when you're surprised by what happens, instead of what you expects happens.
That's why the Tim Tebow phenomenon was so great. It was unexpected.
Smith's solid play last season was unexpected. Once again with a new playbook and a new head coach, how could he possibly succeed after so much failure? It was great watching Smith finally do something good for the franchise that drafted him No. 1.
Smith had a good year. It's just hard to say he's the reason the 49ers were successful last season. The team won largely in spite of him, not because of him. He was basically the same player this season as he's always been; he just had a good coach who worked around his limitations.
Smith isn't a bad quarterback. I don't believe the 49ers will ever be a bad team because of him, but they could definitely be a better team without him. Even once Smith gets more help from his receivers, he will still have his limitations as a passer. Going into his eighth season, can Smith ever develop into a passer like Eli Manning or Tom Brady? That's very doubtful. If the 49ers had a quarterback who Harbaugh felt comfortable throwing with on 3rd-and-long, or even on first down, the 49ers could become the best team in the NFL.
The 49ers have a championship level defense, running game and kicking game. If they only had a championship level quarterback.