For the first six years of Alex Smith's NFL career, a mention of the Pro Bowl in the same sentence as the enigmatic quarterback may have ended some journalists' careers. He was entirely too inconsistent, made too many mistakes, wasn't accurate enough, held on to the ball too long and didn't have good field awareness.
As optimistic that I was that Smith could turn it around under new coach Jim Harbaugh, I really did not see this coming. Smith looks like an entirely new quarterback in 2011. The former No. 1 overall pick has limited his mistakes, been much more accurate, is consistently good and gets rid of the ball into tight coverage with success a majority of the time.
Although it might have flown under the radar, Smith began this dramatic improvement towards the second half of last season. In his final six starts of 2010, he threw eight touchdowns compared to one interception, and the Niners went 4-2 during that span. Overall, Smith is 11-3 in his last 14 starts, with a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 18:3. He has also had six games with a quarterback rating of over 100 during those 14 stats, more than he had the first five and half seasons of his entire career.
It is hard to look past the following statistics in regards to coming to a conclusion about Alex Smith's worthiness of being mentioned as a Pro Bowl candidate.
Those statistics reek of "game manager" more than anything else. Does a player who does just what's asked of him, not more, deserve to be mentioned for a Pro Bowl spot? This is a question that a lot of skeptics will ask moving forward.
Smith has three fourth-quarter comebacks in 2011, a total that matches his first six seasons combined. Those comebacks have all come on the road, in the Eastern Time Zone and against teams with a combined 15-9 record. This is something that voters should take into account when determining who belongs in the Pro Bowl or not.
Some will conclude that we are in the "passing era," as evidenced by multiple quarterbacks who are on pace to destroy Dan Marino's single-season touchdown record. While that may be true to an extent, researching further, it really isn't as clear-cut as many would indicate.
Talking with other football fans on Twitter the other day, I compared Smith's 2011 season to Steve Young's Pro Bowl performance during the 1997 season. I got a lot of grief for comparing apples to oranges, but that really isn't true.
67.7 completion %, 3,029 yards, 19 touchdowns and six interceptions
64.1 completion %, 2,934 yards, 20 touchdowns and four interceptions
The argument against comparing statistics was that we are in more of a passing era right now. Not 100 percent correct, and the following will show you that.
201.8 yards per game, 20.6 touchdowns, 16.0 interceptions and 75.0 quarterback rating
234.2 yards per game, 23.6 touchdowns, 15.8 interceptions and 82.8 quarterback rating
Probably not the difference that many people would have thought, listening to pundits saying Smith is nothing more than a game manager. The first half of his 2011 season compares well to Young's performance in 1997. It is hard to make a strong counter-argument against that.
An argument could be made that Smith is actually the MVP of the San Francisco 49ers' offense at the midway point of the season. He literally won two games in the second half with stellar play. Going a perfect 9-for-9 in the third quarter of the 49ers' 20-point comeback victory against the Philadelphia Eagles, and then hitting Delanie Walker on a fourth-down touchdown pass in the final seconds against Detroit two weeks later. If it weren't for those two performances the 49ers would probably be sitting at 5-3 right now, not 7-1.
When determining whether or not a player is a serious candidate for the Pro Bowl, you have to look at his competition; and that is stiff in regards to the quarterback position in the NFC. We can already assume that Aaron Rodgers is a lock. He is having the best stretch of any quarterback since Joe Montana in his heyday, even surpassing Tom Brady's 2007 performance.
Drew Brees leads the entire NFL with over 3,000 passing yards, double the amount that Smith currently has. Yet Brees has committed eight more turnovers than Smith and averages 17 more passing attempt per game. Eli Manning is arguably having the best season of his solid career in 2011 and will probably be a lock for the Pro Bowl if he continues to limit his mistakes and lead the Giants to the NFC East title. It isn't out of the realm of possibility that Smith gets more Pro Bowl votes than most of us expect because of how the 49ers have turned around their franchise over the course of the first half of the season.
You have to take a look at the team's overall success when drawing a conclusion about a player's worthiness of a Pro Bowl nod. The 49ers have the second-best record in the NFL, are averaging over 25 points per game, have a unfathomable five-game lead in their division through just nine weeks and rank third in the league in point differential. Those are statistics that speak to the true volume of this teams turnaround and ability to make some noise in the playoffs.
Once the 49ers clinch the NFC West, probably before December begins, they will start to work on some things in order to get ready for the playoffs. It will help that they have a lot of games against some of the weaker teams in the NFL, so it probably won't be the downfall of their opportunity to acquire a first-round bye.
Harbaugh and Co. could easily make the decision to open up the offense a lot more than they have during the first eight games. This would do a few different things. First, it would enable them to see if the offense has the ability to take their game to the next level. This is extremely important heading into the playoffs, where they will be playing stiff competition. Secondly, it would limit the amount of carries that Frank Gore has, while keeping him fresh for the postseason. Finally, it would enable Smith to prove that he is more of a game manager and pad his somewhat pedestrian passing totals.
If that happens, you can expect Smith to have a much better statistical second half in terms of yards and touchdowns, which would in turn make him more viable in the popularity contest that is the Pro Bowl selection process.
Listen, I don't think that Smith will make the Pro Bowl this season. The competition is really stiff when it comes to the quarterback position, and he hasn't put up awe-inspiring numbers as of yet. The simple fact that we can have a viable discussion leads me to believe that Smith has taken that next step as a starting quarterback in the NFL, and the 49ers' success moving forward will only show that.
We have to remember he is only 27 years old and hitting the prime of his career. At this point, it just makes sense to forget about the first five and half seasons and move forward with confidence in a quarterback that has proven himself worthy. Pro Bowl nod or not!