Alex Smith is enjoying a banner year at the helm of a revamped San Francisco offense.
Under the tutelage of offense-minded coach Jim Harbaugh, Smith is reaping the benefits and has guided the 49ers to a 4-1 record. A cursory look at his stats so far this season draws comparisons to Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady as one of the more accurate, efficient and protected quarterbacks this season.
At 4-1, its best start in nearly a decade, San Francisco has an early, commanding lead in the NFC West. At this point, a playoff berth looks promising with a two-game lead over Seattle (2-3) and a comfortable distance from Arizona (1-4) and St. Louis (0-4).
Sunday's 48-3 chucking of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers represented the 49ers' most complete game in years. The cliche has been used frequently this week, but they outplayed and outcoached Tampa Bay.
You have to go back to the Jeff Garcia-Terrell Owens era for a proper comparison.
Smith has revealed his full potential in an offensive scheme that has showcased a clock-grinding power running game and an elastic passing game with multiple weapons in Frank Gore, Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree, Josh Morgan and Ted Ginn Jr.
Smith has demonstrated calm, impeccable timing and poise in the pocket and also a pedigree to make plays outside the pocket.
An emerging West Coast offense and a growing confidence in passing downfield is putting defenses across the league on notice. By reducing turnovers, sacks and mistakes, this offense is taking advantage of nearly every opportunity given to them.
A lean, but efficient stat line from Smith on Sunday reveals this plainly. He finished 11-for-19 with 170 yards, three touchdowns and no turnovers or sacks.
After a slow start, Gore has racked up two consecutive 100-yard running games and appears destined for another solid season in the 49er backfield. But he's not alone in the backfield. Power running schemes thrive on a solid offensive line to provide protection, to create holes in the defense and a hustling fullback to lead and make crucial blocks downfield.
There was an unsung hero, among many others, in Sunday's shipwrecking of the Buccaneers. Fullback Bruce Miller was the embodiment of the selfless hustle that propelled the San Francisco 49ers downfield with substantial yard gains on key plays.
Late in the first quarter, a 24-yard gain by Ted Ginn Jr on a reverse was created by the downfield hustle of Miller. The 49ers' drive was stalled by a rare red zone Gore fumble. Two plays later, a Carlos Rogers interception picked up Gore's gaffe, resulting in a 31-yard return for a touchdown early in the second quarter.
Early in the fourth quarter, when rookie quarterback Colin Kaepernick and rookie running back Kendall Hunter took the field, the 49ers showed that the whole team has bought into Harbaugh's philosophy and attention to detail.
Deep in their own territory on second down and 13 yards to go, a toss to Hunter took the 49ers to midfield after a 44-yard gain. Miller was a key factor in that gain, setting up blocks for Hunter across midfield.
Six minutes and 50 yards later, Miller led the way with a block, allowing running back Anthony Dixon to score the final points of the day, with just under four minutes left in the game.
Harbaugh's quick work in San Francisco is drawing attention across the league.
The back half of the season schedule leaves a lot of questions open. A road game against the undefeated Detroit Lions (5-0) will put the offensive line to the test and reveal a lot about what this team is made of.
For perspective, the Harbaugh era has only begun. But the 49ers enter Detroit this weekend for a marquee matchup and a new reputation to defend.
Jonathan Cronin is a writer and student based in Austin, Texas. He runs the new blog, Sports, Bread & Circuses (http://sportsbreadandcircuses.blogspot.com/). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org