I understand the Alex Smith "factor" may be a little overplayed at this point. Article after article has been written in regards to his successes and failures as a member of the San Francisco 49ers over the last six seasons.
The former No. 1 overall pick has been subject to ridicule and criticism for the majority of his NFL career, and it has been well-warranted.
However, the 49ers began a new era of football Sunday with a new coaching staff, multiple new players and a new outlook from the enigmatic quarterback.
Some of my points will be in regards to his performance against the Seattle Seahawks. Other points will be made in regards to what I have seen throughout the last two seasons. Whether you like Smith or not, it is hard to deny that he has improved in each of those years.
Today's performance lends credence to the belief that he is ready to take the next step.
Tonight, I want to focus on five particular reasons why Alex Smith is good for the San Francisco 49ers offense in 2011.
I think we can all agree that Alex Smith has not been the most confident signal caller over the course of his NFL career. A lot of that has to do with a lack of success in the league, but some of it has to do with external factors.
Smith had seven different offensive coordinators over the course of his first six NFL seasons. That lack of continuity is bound to mess with the on-field confidence of a quarterback at this level.
Another issue sits with the lack of offensive scheme and talent around Smith. Prior to this season, Smith has not had an offensive-minded head coach. He also hasn't have a true No. 1 receiver.
However, most of the blame needs to be placed directly onto the shoulders of Alex Smith. He just hasn't performed at a high level in the NFL. And because of that Smith's confidence had taken a dramatic hit.
Today's game proved on thing: that Smith now has the confidence necessary to succeed in the NFL. Stats wont show this, but he demeanor on the field was completely different than in previous seasons.
He handled pressure really well, stepped up in the pocket when it collapsed and looked to be having fun on the field.
How many times in the past have you seen Smith actually smile on the field? Well, he did today.
If Smith continues to show this confidence, it will only add to his impact on the field and in the locker room.
Alex Smith seems to have found a fit in offensive coordinator Greg Roman and head coach Jim Harbaugh. Smith now has the scheme that seems to fit what he does best on the football field.
People seem to forget that Smith is an extremely athletic quarterback and has the ability to escape the pocket when protection breaks down. Previous 49ers offenses did not utilize this talent much.
There were a lot of four- or five-step drops, and when Smith would feel the pressure it was at a point where stepping up and running wasn't an option. When that occurred, Smith would take sack, throw the ball away or make a mistake in coverage.
Now with the shorter drops and quicker reads, Smith has the ability to find the target, check down to another option or run with the ball. This can confuse the defense and cause coverage breakdowns.
We saw that a little bit today against Seattle, but you will see a lot more of that when execution catches up with scheme.
Short drops and quick passes were an extremely important part of Utah's offense when Smith led the Utes to the Fiesta Bowl in college. The West Coast offense will utilize these talents a great deal moving forward in 2011.
In previous articles I have written about how Harbaugh is a "quarterback guru" who will help Alex Smith in San Francisco, so there really isn't much of a reason to rehash that.
Instead, I will write about Harbaugh's hands-on approach in terms of offensive play calling on game day. Late last week it was announced that the head coach would be calling some of the plays and would be the voice in Smith's head.
This does a couple different things.
First, it indicates that the two have an extremely close relationship and appear to be on the same page. When the 49ers offense gets more accustomed to the new scheme it will make a marked difference.
You will see an offense that is incredibly crisp and understands exactly what needs to happen in a given situation. There will be pre-snap audibles and rotations that will be directed by Smith. However, in reality they will be led by Harbaugh on the sideline.
What some may mistake as confusion on the line will actually be what I consider a "magnificent mess." This means that San Francisco's offense will have a good handle on what is happening, while opposing defenses will be utterly confused.
This promises to help Smith a great deal in terms of executing the game plan on Sundays. He will have a wide variety of different possibilities even as the scheme and formation remains the same.
Urban Meyer did a great job with this at Utah and now Harbaugh promises to help Smith regain that form in 2011.
A couple different things that I noticed watching the 49ers-Seahawks game—first, that the vanilla play-calling by San Francisco's coaching staff continued.
It looked a lot more like the Jimmy Raye offense of 2010. There really wasn't much of a difference in regards to third-down play calling, misdirection calls, over-the-top passes, etc. Instead, we saw much of the same. Minimal gains on first and second down as well as a failure to convert on 3rd-and-long.
A lot of this can be chalked up to this being the 49ers' first game of the regular season and Harbaugh attempting to get a better feel of San Francisco's personnel. It will change as the season continues to progress.
Braylon Edwards can be a huge x-factor for the 49ers offense moving forward. He is that true No. 1 receiver the team has been looking for, which is only going to help Smith a lot this season.
One of the best play calls an offense can make in the red zone is throwing the ball towards the back of the end zone to the best receiver. San Francisco attempted this twice Sunday, the first time Seattle called for a pass interference penalty and the second time failing.
This type of play limits the possibility of a turnover and gives your best receiver an opportunity to make a play on the ball when the defensive back doesn't have a good read on where it is going. You see this play run for Calvin Johnson, Andre Johnson and Dez Bryant, among others. Edwards has the size and ability to make it happen.
Another play that I saw run multiple times today was the "behind-the-shoulder pass." This is where Smith purposely throws the ball behind the receiver's back shoulder and allows him to come back for the ball. It was successful in passes to both Vernon Davis and Joshua Morgan.
San Francisco was unable to run these two plays in previous seasons because it didn't have the scheme or talent to make it successful.
This season it does. Now execution needs to be better.
One stat that completely dumbfounded me today was the fact that Alex Smith has thrown 30 career red-zone touchdowns compared to just a single interception. Those are the numbers of a quarterback that really doesn't make a whole lot of mistakes.
However, outside of the red zone it has been an incredibly different story for Smith, but he has changed that a great deal as well.
Smith looks to be a lot more decisive in the pocket. He knows where second read is and feels the pocket collapse. Those are two extremely important indicators of a quarterback's ability to succeed at this level.
These are also things that Smith lacked prior to the last couple of seasons. He wasn't able to fully understand what it meant to have a "mental" clock in the pocket. Today, he recognized when and where the pressure was coming, changing targets accordingly.
Including Sunday's win over the Seattle Seahawks, Smith has limited mistakes a great deal recently. He has thrown one interception in his last seven games (182 pass attempts).
If Smith can continue to limit these mistakes, it promises to be his best season as a pro.