Yes, we're talking about the same Alex Smith.
You remember Smith, the kid from Utah who was drafted No. 1 in the 2005 NFL draft—23 spots ahead of Aaron Rodgers. Smith was the kid that electrified the nation in its first real look at the Urban Meyer offense.
Sure, Meyer had been at Bowling Green, but Smith and Meyer took Utah to the national stage with a Fiesta Bowl win and a team that seemed near impossible to beat. In many ways, Smith was Tim Tebow before Tebow was Tim Tebow.
Before the 2005 draft, Len Pasquarelli (then at ESPN.com) wrote this about Smith's pro day:
The Wednesday workout only enhanced an already strong portfolio. One scout from an NFC team suggested to ESPN.com it was the best quarterback workout he had seen in at least 10 years. Another compared it to Troy Aikman's now-legendary audition in 1989.
Compared to Rodgers, Smith was considered the better athlete and just as smart. His arm wasn't nearly as strong, and he came from a gimmicky spread-option offense, but Rodgers had to fight the stigma of being a "Jeff Tedford QB"—a group with numerous draft busts to its credit.
So what gives? What happened that turned Alex Smith, the great college quarterback, into the Smith we know now?
You know this Smith, the guy who is 32-34 as starting quarterback for the 49ers, who has never been an All-Pro or been to the Pro Bowl. Smith ranks 25th among active quarterbacks in both passing yards and in passing touchdowns. His passer rating? 30th.
There is little to no evidence that Smith will ever be anything more than the moderate draft bust he has always been.
Or is there?
2011 was clearly Smith's best season as a pro.
First off, 2011 was only the second year in which Smith played all 16 games. That alone is somewhat astounding for a man who is heading into his eighth year.
It doesn't end there. Smith's attempts, yardage, completion percentage and yards per attempt were all the highest of his career, and his interception rate was way down.
Was he 2011 Pro Bowl good, All-Pro good, first overall pick good? No, not at all. While Smith may have offered the best return of his career on the investments the 49ers have made, he still hasn't come close to meeting the lofty measure of hype he once commanded.
However, 2011 was a good year for the 49ers as a team, and Smith had more to do with that than critics would like you to believe. The common theory is that Smith was carried along by a strong rushing game and a fantastic defense, that his play was just good enough to get out of the way of his teammates.
But remember the chart above. Smith was ninth in passer rating—not too shabby. Over at Pro Football Focus (paid), the guys ranked him the eighth-best quarterback of 2011. Football Outsiders, while a little more bearish, had him as the 13th-best passer.
Smith's play is starting to look better, and that still doesn't tell the whole story.
Smith had six game-winning drives/fourth-quarter comebacks in 2011—equal to the entire rest of his career combined. That total trailed only Eli Manning and was one better than Mr. "He Just Wins" Tebow. Smith was not just along for the ride in those wins; he helped the team move down the field and get points.
While Smith's playoff stats were not as good as his regular season numbers, he didn't turn the ball over and had the 49ers within a muffed punt of going to a Super Bowl.
It's clear that even if Smith is only as good as he was in 2011, 2012 could be very special for San Francisco. However, there are plenty of reasons to believe that this year we could see Smith's best work yet.
Greg Roman returns as offensive coordinator (after flirting with Penn State), and Smith was clearly comfortable in his offense. More than that, this will be only the second time that an offensive coordinator has returned to coach Smith for a second year. Jimmy Raye, the other, only made it three games into his second season before he was fired. The rest did not even make it that long.
Seven years, seven different systems—some, like Mike Martz's scheme, as crazy as NFL offenses can get for a quarterback. Smith has played in a power rush attack, the West Coast offense, a spread, a run-and-shoot and more. He's had to learn countless pieces of terminology and then forget them shortly thereafter. He's stayed put in San Francisco, yet lived the life of a journeyman quarterback.
His weapons, too, have improved for the 2012 season. Randy Moss, Mario Manningham and A.J. Jenkins were added to the receiving corps, while the running back stable got two new horses in Brandon Jacobs and LaMichael James. The offensive line returns almost entirely intact, losing only right guard Adam Snyder, who was one of the worst guards in football last year.
Maybe Moss doesn't contribute a thing, and maybe Jenkins is a year off. So what? Smith's top four targets from 2011—Michael Crabtree, Vernon Davis, Ted Ginn Jr. and Kyle Williams—are all returning, and Frank Gore is back to keep defenses stacking the box. The Niners' offensive depth chart is almost entirely the same as 2011 with a new layer of talent placed conveniently on top.
More consistency in Smith's life is a good thing, and more offensive talent around him (easily the best of his career) is even better.
Smith exceeded expectations last year and helped the 49ers reach the playoffs. Expect him to take another step forward this year and find himself in the discussion for year-end awards like the Pro Bowl. A better Smith means the 49ers can start thinking Super Bowl already, because they have the talent and, finally, they have their quarterback.
Michael Schottey is an NFL Associate Editor for Bleacher Report and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He has professionally covered both the Minnesota Vikings and the Detroit Lions, as well as NFL events like the scouting combine and the Senior Bowl.