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When the 49ers re-signed quarterback Alex Smith this past July to a one-year deal, the news elicited more groans than applause from 49ers fans.
Readers to one online news story posted such immediate responses as, “Quit giving this guy chances,” “Great, another season down the drain” and, “They’ll never give up on this (expletive).”
But a funny thing happened to Smith and the 49ers on the way to “another season down the drain.” Both turned into winners.
Now, after leading his team to an NFC West championship, a 13-3 regular-season record and the NFC Championship Game, Smith is one of the leading candidates to receive the Associated Press Comeback Player of the Year award, to be presented Saturday night in Indianapolis as part of the league’s first “NFL Honors” celebration of the top players and coaches of the 2011-12 season.
And Smith, who decided to come back to the 49ers for one more season – after six previous seasons of disappointment after being the No. 1 choice in the 2005 draft – certainly earned a shot at the trophy with the best season of his career. He threw for 3,144 yards, completed 61.3 percent of his passes, compiled a 90.7 quarterback rating and threw just five interceptions, all career highs, following a disappointing 2010 season in which he was benched and injured.
In addition, Smith actually guided the 49ers to several comebacks.
As Michael Erler of CBS Sports noted, Smith led five fourth-quarter comebacks in the regular season, including four on the road. And that was before his dramatic performance in the victory over the Saints in the divisional round of the playoffs, when he sprinted 28 yards for a touchdown, then fired a late, game-winning TD pass to Vernon Davis.
Former NFL and Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon, one of 50 voters for the Comeback award this season, told the Detroit Free Press that Smith is his choice, ahead of Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, who rebounded from injury in 2010.
Gannon told the Free Press’ Dave Birkett he went back and forth between Smith and Stafford but voted for Smith.
“I didn’t go with the numbers so much, I just looked at this kid,” Gannon told Birkett. “They wanted to run his ass out of San Francisco. Nobody wanted him. (Coach) Jim Harbaugh put his arm around him and built this kid back up. They killed him out there. This guy had Mike McCarthy and Mike Johnson and they had four other guys (as offensive coordinator). I just think the whole thing was a real tragedy.
“You’re talking about a first overall pick in the draft. What they did to the kid, gosh, it was a disaster.”
Aside from Stafford, wide receiver Plaxico Burress of the Jets also is considered a strong candidate for the award. Stafford won the Pro Football Weekly/Pro Football Writers Association version of the award, while Burress was named The Sporting News Comeback Player of the Year, reported Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle.
In writing about Smith’s credentials for Comeback Player, Branch says Smith is “a legitimate candidate” with an unusual career track of “failure/adversity, failure/adversity, failure/adversity, failure/adversity and, finally … success.”
If nothing else, Smith -- again a free agent -- should win an award for tenacity.