If you remember Alex Smith's rookie season in the NFL, you remember that it wasn't particularly pleasant. With one touchdown and 11 picks, he looked downright Ryan Leaf-esque at times. Sure, it was only one year, but he didn't do a whole lot to make you think he would have a long career as a competent NFL QB.
He turned it around in 2006, playing decently as the Niners went 7-9. But after reverting back to his old ways in 2007, it looked like he was done for good. He didn't play at all in 2008 because the Niners thought they had a better chance of winning with J.T. O'Sullivan.
No, seriously—J.T. O'Sullivan.
After the terrible start to his career, it's amazing to see where Smith is now. This guy didn't just look like a bust; he looked like one of the single biggest busts in the history of the game. In 2009, he would get another chance to lead the team, and once again, he appeared competent. You didn't think of him as the starting QB of the future, but he wasn't killing the team either.
2010 was pretty much the same way. Then in 2011, the Niners hired Jim Harbaugh and subsequently became a contender. Their defense became ridiculously tough, and they were able to win games against anyone without having to rely on immense contributions from the offense. This was a huge load off of Smith, who thrived in the "game manager" role.
He threw 18 touchdowns to only five interceptions and played brilliantly in a playoff win against the Saints. Maybe he didn't look like a superstar, but for the first time, Alex Smith looked like a quarterback that a team could win with—just as long as they surrounded him with a strong supporting cast.
This year, he's taken it a step further.
Five games into the season, Smith has the highest passer rating in the league. He also looks extremely confident, not being afraid to make long throws downfield. In last week's rout of the Buffalo Bills, Smith looked positively dangerous as he continued to throw completions of 40 yards or more. He's never been as good as he is right now.
You could make the case that Smith is still just a "game-managing" QB because the Niners' supporting cast prevents him from needing to win games by himself, but that wouldn't be fair. Other than Matt Ryan, no QB in the league has been better this season, and it's time he got some credit for it. Right now, Alex Smith looks like a star QB and a likely Pro Bowler.
Maybe he won't keep it up all season long, but if he does, it will be one of the most inspiring stories the NFL has ever seen: a much-hyped top pick who became an embarrassing bust, only to keep fighting and eventually become one of the league's best.