As we near the midseason mark, the San Francisco 49ers enter Week 8 with a respectable 5-2 record.
The Niners' defensive personnel has returned, and so has their intensely dominant prestige. The unit currently reigns atop the league, ranked at No. 1, but the pleasant surprise has come on the offensive side of the ball.
So far in 2012, Frank Gore and Vernon Davis have engaged in prominent roles in the 49ers' offensive assault. Their involvement on game day has correlated with wins. Another storyline has been the emergence of San Francisco’s offensive line, which is looking like one of the better units in the NFL.
It’s also been a “no rookies, no problem” approach in the Bay Area. San Francisco is the only team in the NFL that is yet to utilize the services of not only their first-round pick, but also their second-round pick—showing how much depth and talent the team has.
And after a storybook season in 2011, Alex Smith returned to the 49ers on a three-year deal for a chance to finish what he and Jim Harbaugh started.
Smith has had his ups and downs this season, but for the most part, he has played very well. San Francisco has a winning record for a second consecutive year with him at the helm, as the entire team is thriving under this new regime.
The 49ers quarterback is not asked to carry the team like a lot of other passers in the league. He executes a very efficient run-first offense, and when Smith is asked to step up, he typically does.
This unique approach by Harbaugh and his staff plays to the strengths of the team, and puts San Francisco in the most advantageous position to win games.
One of the best things about Smith and this team is that he has such a firm grasp of the offense. The restructuring that took place at the beginning of last season emphasized Smith’s return as the Niners quarterback—a fresh start.
When Harbaugh implemented his system, he had Smith’s strengths and weaknesses in mind.
Smith really displayed his leadership when he organized workouts during a league-wide lockout. He bought into the idea Harbaugh was selling, and it resulted in the team buying into Smith. He’s taken charge of his offense and has his team and the people of San Francisco believing this team can win a Super Bowl with him.
On and off the field, he has an irreplaceable relationship with two key playmakers in Vernon Davis and Frank Gore.
Davis, the team’s star tight end, has been Smith’s biggest supporter. Their relationship, which continues to develop, has been a principal factor when it comes to the success of the 49ers. Smith was also drafted with the team’s all-time leading rusher in Gore, and together they captain this offense.
This trio has been through the hard times, and now that the team is soaring, they seem to be operating at a more succinct, cohesive level.
NFL fans found out early this season Smith is capable of being in the upper tier of QBs statistically, as he led the league in passer rating and QBR before his three-interception game against the Giants.
In his two seasons (21 regular season games) with Harbaugh, Smith has put together only campaigns where he's exceeded a 90-plus passer rating on the season.
Even though one could argue Smith has been in a slump the past two games, fans had to expect challenges and hurdles along the way.
In back-to-back weeks, Smith was challenged by two potent, fly-around defenses that excel at getting after the passer. And while the Niners fell to the Giants, Smith did enough to inch out a win against a highly competitive Seahawks team.
He’s still having a very solid season.
He’s led San Francisco to a 5-2 record to start the 2012 season, currently on top of the NFC West division. Since Smith has been working in tandem with Harbaugh, the two have posted an 18-5 regular season record.
Smith is completing 66.8 percent of his passes, currently making him the seventh most accurate passer in the league.
At one point, his TD-INT ratio was 8:1, but a couple of ugly, hard-fought games since deflated that stat. Smith is still doing well, though, with nine touchdowns to five interceptions heading into Week 8—also nearing 1,500 yards.
His 93.9 QB rating also preserves his spot in the top 10 for a seventh straight week, at No. 8 in the NFL.
Despite a couple rough outings in Weeks 6 and 7, Smith is on track to surpass his breakthrough 2011 campaign. And as long as the 49ers continue to win 70-plus percent of their games, Smith will remain in the praises of his teammates.
Smith has struggled this season when playing from behind.
Against Philadelphia, Detroit and New Orleans in 2011, Smith had the clutch gene. But this year, Smith’s inability to put the game on his shoulders has been a chief concern. When teams face San Francisco, they will focus on getting an early lead because they know it will put the 49ers at a strategic disadvantage.
When asked to play from behind this season, Smith failed to engineer comebacks two out of two times. It was the Minnesota Vikings and New York Giants who exploited this weakness—two hard-nosed teams with balanced offenses.
Other issues have been with accuracy and consistency. Smith has been firing high to his receivers this season and has a handful of memorable missed opportunities. There have been a lot of questions surrounding his ability to make reads and pull the trigger.
In all fairness to Smith, the 49ers don’t always game plan around his strengths or put him in favorable situations. But this is a negative in itself because it just goes to show how small the room for error is with him at QB.
After Giants and Seahawks
#49ers Alex Smith has posted a sub-75.0 rating in back-to-back games for first time since 2010 (Week 3 & 4).
— Eric Branch (@Eric_Branch) October 19, 2012
The big picture is, with Harbaugh and this new regime, Smith is a winning quarterback.
The 49ers have a good situation with him behind center, for now. For a team that tackles challenges one day at a time, they can feel comfortable knowing that this team can go far with Smith. He’s proven that he can execute this offense, as the 49ers now kickoff on Sunday’s with the expectation to win.
However, play-calling is essential to his performance. The staff and players around him need to work to make sure their quarterback has the most favorable situation.
And this goes back to the team-first mentality Harbaugh has instilled, where everybody pitches in equally to help accomplish a goal.
As an individual, Smith has upgraded many facets in his game, but there is room for improvement. The offense as a whole has taken a massive step forward, moving from the 26th-ranked unit in 2011 to a top-10 attack this year.
Having defeated teams like Green Bay, Detroit and Seattle already this season, the Niners have shown they can beat just about anyone with Smith behind center. Week 1 at Green Bay was arguably the toughest fathomable matchup, but the 49ers won convincingly.
San Francisco has a dominant ball club, and Smith is an equal contributor. No. 11 can once again lead this team to a deep playoff push, potentially resulting in him being the third quarterback in 49ers franchise history to hoist the Lombardi trophy.