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Alex Smith had a break-out season in 2011
No player benefited more from Jim Harbaugh's presence than quarterback Alex Smith. After six years of play as a 49er, Smith's efforts can be described as falling somewhere between mediocre and downright poor.
Following the 2010 season, nobody expected Smith to ever wear the red and gold again. Fans were glad that he was going to move on, and Smith himself was ready to explore other avenues.
Then, an amazing thing happened. The 49ers hired Harbaugh as their head coach, and he established a special bond with Smith. After considering his options, Smith decided to stay in San Francisco. Truth be told, nobody would have blamed Smith if he left the 49ers prior to the 2011 season.
Harbaugh claimed to believe in Smith; something his prior two coaches, Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary, never really did. Then Harbaugh began to teach Smith the nuances of being a successful NFL quarterback.
In addition, the play-calling did not expose Smith to taking too many chances or winning games all by himself. His job was to hand the ball to Frank Gore, take what the defense gave him and not turn the ball over. Based on those very modest requirements, Smith did his job well.
2011 was Smith's best year as a pro. He completed 273 of his 445 passes, a 61.3 percentage. Smith also was very careful with the ball, not making turnovers or falling victim to the crucial mistake that dogged him in his prior seasons with the 49ers.
Smith threw 17 touchdowns and gave up only five interceptions. By not making the critical turnover, Smith gave the 49ers defense the field position that helped to make them great.
In 2011, 49ers' field-goal kicker David Akers set an NFL record for field goals. This was in large part due to the failure of the 49ers offense to score touchdowns once they were in the red zone.
The 49ers have made several additions to their offensive unit, designed to give them more explosiveness. The goal is to score more touchdowns and not settle for as many field-goal attempts.
With the additions of Randy Moss, Mario Manningham, A.J. Jenkins and LaMichael James, the 49ers should be much more equipped to score touchdowns from anywhere on the field.
Harbaugh and the 49ers will be counting on Smith to take the next big step in his growth. This involves getting the ball to his receivers and being a more consistent passer.
If the 49ers hope to make it to the Super Bowl, they must have excellent play from their quarterback. It will be up to Smith to prove that he can be a consistent winner in the league.
As Smith continues to improve and gain confidence, head coach Jim Harbaugh will open up the playbook. If Smith plays well this coming season, there is no reason he cannot lead the 49ers to a Super Bowl.