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Why San Francisco 49ers Can Get by with Alex Smith Managing the Game

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - OCTOBER 30:  Alex Smith #11 of the San Francisco 49ers throws the ball against the Cleveland Browns at Candlestick Park on October 30, 2011 in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Caleb GarlingCorrespondent IOctober 30, 2011

If you time-traveled to the beginning of the season and told a 'Niner fan that their team would start the season 6-1 on the back of consistent play from Alex Smith, they'd probably try to fight you for clearly, and cruelly, screwing with their heads.

For five years, 'Niner Nation has been tortured by Alex Smith.

He always knew when to fumble (when there was a chance for a win). He always knew when to throw an egregious interception (ditto). He rarely set his feet. He missed open receivers by either drilling the ball into the ground or drilling it into their ribcage on short screens. Time and time again he would just plain screw up. Admittedly, much of that traces back to inept and discontinuous coaching and poor offensive lines, but even though he's a nice guy, it became maddeningly unclear why he got so many second chances.

But with their win over the Browns today, the 49ers are in fact 6-1. And Alex Smith is playing well. He does still occasionally try to assassinate someone, usually Frank Gore, with the football, and his feet still jitter like someone put fire ants in his cleats when the blitz is on. But Jim Harbaugh has finally figured out what makes this team tick: grinding the ball. You can win in the NFL without the spectacular play of your quarterback if you can run the ball and play lights-out defense—both of which the 'Niners do.

Smith has attempted just 158 pass attempts and has accumulated 1,090 yards this season, both good for 26th in the league behind such, um, talent as Rex Grossman and Jason Campbell. In every game it is clear that Jim Harbaugh started his weekly strategy outline by writing, "Step one: Take game out of Alex's hands." And that's fine. Give the ball to Gore and rookie spark plug Kendall Hunter and let Patrick Willis and company do the rest.

I texted a friend the other day, "We are the poor man's 2000 Ravens!"

He texted back, "More like, diseased homeless man's...but I'll take it!"

The year the Ravens won the Super Bowl their quarterbacks were Tony Banks and Trent Dilfer. Neither passed for more than 300 yards in a game and the team finished 20th in the league in pass attempts. Yet they were tops in just about every defensive category on the shoulders of Ray Lewis and company.

The 'Niners still have a lot to prove—can you do this for 16-plus games?—yet their schedule won't give them many opportunities to do it. The only imposing dates left are against the Steelers, the Giants  and, ironically, the Ravens. They have the Redskins away and the rest of their games are divisional matchups. That'll be enough to launch them into the postseason for the first time in a decade.

We'll have to see what happens when they, and Alex Smith, finally get there.

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