Alex Smith: Buying or Selling the San Francisco 49ers QB as 'Elite'

Nick Kostora@@nickkostoraContributor IIIOctober 7, 2012

Sept 30, 2012; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith (11) runs off the field after their game against the New York Jets at MetLIfe Stadium. The 49ers defeated the Jets 34-0.  Mandatory Credit: Ed Mulholland-US PRESSWIRE
Ed Mulholland-US PRESSWIRE

It's a simple question with a convoluted answer: Is Alex Smith an elite NFL quarterback?

The usual pass-happy characteristics are not there. Smith is never going to throw for 5,000 yards, and he is never going to lead the league in touchdowns. What he is going to do is make smart, accurate throws that consistently help the San Francisco 49ers offense score points.

Smith has struggled to get to this level. He has withstood seven different offensive coordinators and multiple shoulder surgeries, but whether or not his early-career challenges were his fault is irrelevant. What matters is where he stands now.

The former No. 1 pick is the leader of one of the most prolific and balanced offenses in the league.

He has thrown only one interception all season and has a 67.3 completion percentage to his credit. Smith operates an offense unfamiliar to most elite quarterbacks. The 49ers are unafraid to run the ball early and often. In fact, with 167 rushing yards per game, San Francisco ranks third in the NFL.

Does that fact detract from Smith being elite?

With only 179 yards passing per game, it is true the 49ers rank 30th in the NFL, but that is more a byproduct of the team's offensive strategy than any deficiency from Smith. A player who was once considered a "bust" and a detriment to the offense is now one of the most reliable and consistent performers in the league. Is that not elite?

This season, Smith has a passer rating of 98.1 and five touchdown passes. He has spread the ball to nine different receivers and has 10 completions of 20 or more yards. These are signs that Smith is highly productive when called upon. After all, he is averaging only 20 pass attempts per game, so his raw numbers will pale in comparison to others'.

Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are all throwing upwards of 25 to 30 passes per game. That is what their offenses call for. It is not a negative characteristic of them but rather a fundamental trait of their systems.

Smith is the leader of a 4-1 team that is averaging over 30 points per game. Is that not elite? Of course, the term "elite" is in and of itself rather opinionated. There is no scientific formula to determine elite status. Yet, the NFL landscape is ever-changing and Smith represents a counterculture of sorts to the trend of higher passing yards every year.

He is a throwback, a QB who works within the framework of an offense and perfectly executes what is asked of him.

Smith is never going to put on the greatest statistical performance in history. Instead, he is going to do something far more important: refuse to turn the ball over and make sure it finds its way into the end zone each and every week.

Smith is an elite NFL QB. It is time everyone started buying into that notion.