It was just 11 days ago that Alex Smith had one of his finest games as a pro, throwing for 303 yards and three touchdowns without an interception in leading the 49ers to a 45-3 rout of the Bills.
After that performance, Smith jumped to the top of the NFL leaderboard in quarterback rating and, seemingly, far beyond those assertions of last season that he was simply a “game manager.”
Now, less than two weeks later, Smith hardly seems like the same player he was that day against the Bills.
First, Smith threw three interceptions in the 49ers’ 26-3 loss to the Giants. Then, in San Francisco’s 13-6 victory over the Seattle Seahawks Thursday night, Smith seemed to be in game-manager mode again, as a secondary piece of the 49ers offense.
After trailing at halftime to the Seahawks, 6-3, the 49ers put their faith in their running game in the second half, relying on Frank Gore to carry the heavy load.
For the game, Smith was just 14-of-23 for 140 yards, with half of those passes to running backs Gore and Kendall Hunter.
Then, in the fourth quarter, after San Francisco had driven to Seattle’s 7 yard line, Smith was intercepted in the corner of the end zone by Seattle cornerback Brandon Browner as he attempted to connect with Randy Moss.
The next time San Francisco got the ball back and drove to the Seattle 13, the Niners kept the ball on the ground, didn’t throw the ball downfield, stalled and settled for a field goal.
The sequence of calls after Smith’s interception caused Sports Illustrated’s Jim Trotter to wonder if the 49ers coaching staff might have lost some confidence in the quarterback.
As Trotter wrote: “The 49ers coaching staff didn’t trust Smith to make a play in that situation.” And, of Smith, Trotter wrote: “He played tentatively, like someone who was concerned with making a mistake.”
Head coach Jim Harbaugh, of course, defended Smith, saying, “Alex had a very good game, made really good decisions. He was fantastic for us all night. … Played with a lot of poise.”
And, Smith’s teammates simply said the second-half concentration on the running game was a move toward the team’s strength.
“It was Niners football,” said right guard Alex Boone to the San Francisco Chronicle. “We knew coming in at halftime, we said, ‘Hey, we’ve got to pound the rock on these guys.’ That’s our roots. … We started going back to our roots and having fun.”
Center Jonathan Goodwin said it was no reflection on Smith that San Francisco bypassed the pass and kept the ball on the ground for the most part with the game on the line.
“We believe in Alex and we believe in our receivers and we believe in Vernon (Davis), but I think the five guys on this line, we want to run the ball,” he told the Chronicle. “With the backs we have, we feel that we can have a great running game.”
As Trotter pointed out, however, if the 49ers want to be the team they believe they can be – and win a Super Bowl – they’re going to need to have Smith play a leading role. And, he wonders if the whole Colin Kaepernick experiment, subbing in the backup in certain situations as a wildcat QB, has taken a toll on Smith’s confidence and performance.
Wrote Trotter: “If he’s really your guy – and you know how much it means for him to know that the organization is completely in his corner – do you continually pull him from games to give snaps to Kaepernick? Is it merely coincidence that Smith’s interception against the Seahawks came one play after Kaepernick replaced him for a snap?”
Smith, however, has chalked up his three-game roller-coaster ride to the “ups and downs” of the NFL. His priority, he says, is to focus on the next task at hand.
For Smith and the 49ers, that means a Monday night game on Oct. 29 in Arizona against the Cardinals.
“You have to move on to the next opponent and get ready,” Smith told Trotter.