Before last season, the word “clutch” never had been linked with Alex Smith in a sentence – unless it was prefaced by the clause “not good in the... .”
But in 2011, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback took huge strides, posting his best NFL season and proving to his coaches, teammates and fans that he could be at his best late in a close game.
After leading the 49ers to late-game, 25-19 victory over the Lions in October, head coach Jim Harbaugh, in the midst of a fiery locker-room speech, pointed at Smith and screamed, “Clutch!”
Smith’s 6-yard touchdown pass to Delanie Walker late in that game had finished off a drive and provided the winning margin, and it was just one of six fourth-quarter or overtime comebacks he engineered, a total that matched his entire output of late-game comebacks in his previous six years in the NFL.
Of course, his signature moment came in the 36-32 playoff victory over the Saints in January when he twice led drives for late TDs, running for one and throwing to tight end Vernon Davis for the game-winner.
But Smith also led late game-winning drives against the Bengals in September, the Eagles in October, the Giants in November and the Seahawks in December.
The question is, will the Alex Smith of 2012 continue to be clutch – and make further strides – or will he regress to be the inconsistent player he was before the arrival of Harbaugh?
Although it’s impossible to say for certain, all offseason signs point to a very confident Smith who appears to be focused on continuing to improve. This offseason, in fact, Smith worked with former major league pitcher Tom House on refining his throwing mechanics. Though House’s background is in baseball, where he’s served as a pitching coach and teacher, House has worked with NFL quarterbacks Drew Brees, Joe Flacco, Carson Palmer and Matt Cassel.
Harbaugh, in fact, said he’s been impressed by Smith’s mechanics since working with House.
“I’ve seen some dramatic improvements,” he said in May.
Smith’s mechanics reportedly had deteriorated a bit over previous seasons following surgeries on his right shoulder in 2007 and 2008, according to a story by the San Francisco Chronicle’s Eric Branch.
“Smith had subtly altered his motion after his surgeries, most notably shifting the position of his head, which affected his eye level and release point,” Branch wrote.
But by improving his mechanics a bit last season under Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman – and then this offseason under House’s tutelage – Smith is improving his accuracy, which of course leads to better throws under pressure, such as the perfect delivery he fired to Davis in the 49ers’ playoff win over the Saints.
According to statistics provided by Mike Sando of ESPN.com last month, Smith’s statistics in the fourth quarter and overtime in 2011 were solid and in some cases even better than his statistics for the season.
Last season, for instance, his season quarterback rating of 90.7 was a career high – and far greater than his career rating of 76.4 – but in the fourth quarter and overtime it was 94.1.
Late in games in 2011, Smith completed 44-of-73 passes (60.3 percent) for 512 yards and four TDs against just one interception.
Said 49ers Pro Bowl linebacker Patrick Willis after Smith’s late plays led San Francisco to its victory over the Saints in January: “It shows he’s becoming an elite quarterback. I’m glad the world could see what he did today.”
Now the world – or at least the rest of the NFL – is waiting to see if he can continue to do it.