Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh talks with quarterback Alex Smith during a timeout Sunday in Philadelphia. (Photo by Rich Schultz /Getty Images)
Alex Smith is still the guy in the 49ers’ No. 11 jersey, still the guy lining up behind center.
But somehow, the Smith of 2011 is a totally different player from the Smith of seasons past.
In leading the 49ers to a 3-1 start, Smith has mostly played solid, mistake-free football, and his teammates have noticed.
He’s stepped into a phone booth and come out the other side, still wearing No. 11 but transformed into something greater.
Now when teammates talk about Smith, they talk about a leader – not the former No. 1 overall draft choice who’s been a whipping boy for fans and media almost since he joined the team in 2005.
Speaking to reporters Monday, Niners running back Frank Gore said Smith is “balling,” playerspeak for playing ball at a high level.
“It’s Alex’s first time having someone who really can understand him and show him the quarterback position and put him in great situations,” Gore told the media. “Coach Harbaugh is doing a great job with him. … He keeps balling, our team will keep winning and we’ll go farther and farther.”
After leading San Francisco’s comeback victory over the Eagles in Philadelphia Sunday – the second straight 49ers comeback victory on the road -- Smith was complimented by head coach Jim Harbaugh, who said it was a “cold-blooded game from him.”
As San Francisco Chronicle columnist Gwenn Knapp noted, “cold-blooded” has never been a term thrown Smith’s way.
“Smith appears not to have an ounce of assassin in him,” she wrote.
But Smith is playing at a different level this season. He’s avoiding the mistakes he so commonly made in the past, and making plays – particularly in the second half of the past two games – when they need to be made.
He seems to be on the same page with Harbaugh – a former NFL quarterback – and the team’s new West Coast offense.
This season Smith has completed 67.3 percent of his throws, has four TD passes to just one interception and has lost just one fumble – all this while the offense has had trouble protecting him. Smith has been sacked 14 times, a problem that must be fixed.
Last year, Smith completed just 59.6 percent of his passes and had 10 interceptions against 14 TD passes.
His QB rating this season is 97.7, compared to 82.1 last season and 73.8 for his career.
“You ain’t seen nothing yet,” Gore told Knapp about Smith. “Eleven is coming. He’s coming. Y’all ain’t seen nothing yet.”