Despite Smith leading the ‘Niners to their first playoff win since 2002, some 49ers fans, including Jerry Rice, believe that the team would be better with a different QB than Smith under center in 2012.
Even though the 49ers are expected to bring Smith back in 2012, the two sides appear to be far apart in their contract discussions. With free agency less than a week away, would the 49ers be better served by pursuing options other than Smith in free agency?
Coming off a season in which Smith led the 49ers to a 13-3 record and a berth in the NFC Championship game, it would seem like a no-brainer for the ‘Niners to re-sign the signal caller that led them within one game of the Super Bowl.
Then again, Smith’s play prior to 2011 had put Smith dangerously close to the dreaded “bust” label.
Since the 49ers selected Smith first overall in the 2005 draft, Smith had done little to warrant a continued presence as the ‘Niners starting QB prior to the 2011 season.
Before the 2011 season, Smith had a career record of 19-31, in addition to more career interceptions than touchdowns.
Even 49er faithful appeared done with the Smith era by booing him at Candlestick Park multiple times during the 2010 season.
Despite Smith's struggles in 2010, new coach Jim Harbaugh re-signed Smith prior to the 2011 season and anointed Smith the starting QB heading into the season. Smith took the opportunity and never looked back in posting a career year across the board in the 2011 season.
In addition to leading the ‘Niners to the playoffs for the first time in his tenure as QB, Smith set career highs in passing yards, completion percentage and QB rating.
Still, for as well Smith played in 2011, the 49ers were an average offense that leaned heavily on star RB Frank Gore.
Smith’s average of 197 passing yards per game rated 26th out of 34 qualified QB’s during the 2011 season. Also of note is the fact that Smith was the most sacked QB, 44 times, this past season.
Basically for all of Smith’s improvements in the 2011 season, he was still nothing more than a league-average QB. For this reason, it has been speculated that the ‘Niners may pursue other options at QB like the aforementioned Peyton Manning (at least Jerry Rice thinks they should).
With one of the elite defensive units in the game and a strong rushing attack, the ‘Niners are certainly capable of deep playoff runs in future years. That being said, it has proven to be difficult to win a Super Bowl without an elite QB.
The last team to win a Super Bowl without an elite QB was the 2000 Baltimore Ravens; the Ravens QB that year was Trent Dilfer. That Raven team proves that teams can win big without elite QBs, but then again, the Ravens featured one of the best defensive units in NFL history.
Although Smith excelled in carrying out Harbaugh’s gameplan in 2011 of not turning the ball over, with only five interceptions on the year, the ‘Niners offense lacked the potent scoring punch that most championship teams have. Most of this can be attributed to the 49ers' conservative game plan, which reflects back on Smith.
In running such a conservative game plan, the coaches are saying they don’t trust Smith enough to open up the playbook. While this game plan keeps the team in every game due to the ‘Niners outstanding defense, it doesn’t allow the 49ers to put many points on the scoreboard.
Defense may win championships, but they can’t do it all by themselves. Smith will be 28 at the start of the 2012 season, and it is likely that his 2011 season is pretty close to the peak of his potential. Smith is a solid QB, but is he capable of guiding the 49ers to a Super Bowl victory?
With Peyton Manning on the free-agent market, the 49ers could attempt to upgrade the quarterback position for the 2012 season. Manning would allow the ‘Niners to open up their playbook and ease the burden on their defense.
Of course it goes without saying that Manning does bring the risk of his neck injury, but signing Manning is something that warrants heavy consideration from general manager Trent Baalke.
Smith performed admirably in 2011 but didn’t give the ‘Niners the offensive firepower needed to bring another title to San Francisco. With all the pieces in place for a championship run, the ‘Niners would be making a mistake in bringing Alex Smith back in 2012.