When you've been through seven offensive coordinators in as many seasons, when you've been ripped and ridiculed and called a bust for failing to live up to expectations after being the top draft pick in 2005, can a fourth-and-goal with less than two minutes to play and your team trailing by four points in a hostile environment really be that intimidating?
Not if you're Alex Smith, the 49ers' quarterback, whose performance is suddenly receiving attention for all the right reasons. Trailing the undefeated Lions 19--15 at Ford Field, Smith lined up in the shotgun, looked briefly to his left, then turned to his right and zipped a pass to tight end Delanie Walker, who came free on a slant route for a six-yard score. The Niners tacked on a field goal for a 25--19 win.
It was another brick in the road to redemption for Smith. The 49ers, after eight straight seasons without a winning record, are now 5--1 and tied for the second-best mark in the NFL.
Smith's afternoon had been mostly miserable before the strike to Walker. He had thrown an interception and lost a fumble to match his totals in those categories for the previous five games combined, and the offense had failed to convert on 11 of 13 third downs, with Smith occasionally misfiring to open receivers. But rather than play down to his reputation as a nice guy who lacked the temperament and talent to turn struggle into triumph—he entered this season with a 19--31 mark as a starter and only seven games with a passer rating of at least 100.0, including just three in his last 29 games—Smith showed he has become a playmaker.
His 2011 passer rating of 95.2 is 20.9 points higher than his career average, and after Sunday he ranked first against the blitz with a rating of 143.5. He also was fourth among QBs with at least 20 attempts with a fourth-quarter rating of 109.2. Overall he is completing 63.3% of his passes (career average pre-2011: 57.1%) for 1,090 yards, with eight scores and two picks. So what explains Smith's rapid improvement?
A simpler plan, for one. Smith says that under new coach Jim Harbaugh and coordinator Greg Roman, he's being asked to do less, which means he doesn't have to force things or take as many chances. "With this coaching staff and this system, the way it's built, it's just take the plays that are there," he says.
• The 49ers have trailed by more than six points in the fourth quarter only twice, so they can stay committed to their running game, which ranked fifth in the league at 131.5 yards per game at week's end.
• Smith has been in and out of the starting lineup since his rookie year and has seen virtually every blitz imaginable. "Baptism-by-fire type deal," he says. "There's not a lot of newness out there."
• The team's personnel has improved, particularly on the offensive line, where three of the five starters are first-round picks. Changes at defensive back have also solidified the secondary, which has helped to keep games close.
• Smith has been shaped by his life experiences, including the 2008 suicide of close friend David Edwards. Smith and wife Elizabeth also had their first child five months ago, further helping him to keep his priorities in order.
Mix these factors with the arrival of Harbaugh from Stanford, a high-energy coach with a reputation for developing quarterbacks, and you have the makings of a breakout season for Smith.
"I believe he can go out there and be what everybody thought he was going to be when he was the first pick in the draft, because he's that heavily talented," says Bucs coach Raheem Morris, whose team was burned for three TD passes thrown by Smith two weeks ago. "The last couple of years he had some situations where he wasn't protected, and there were sacks and fumbles. But quarterback is the hardest position in the league. Rich Gannon failed his first time around, too, but he started looking great by the end of his career. Different systems, different players, different coaches—that matters. And he'll get better and better as the season moves along."
TIME TO SHINE An offensive line stocked with top draft picks has helped Smith increase his career passer rating by more than 20 points this year.