49ers' QB Smith May Never Earn Elite Status

His ranking as No. 16 QB in the NFL cites his terrific improvement, but also his 'limitations'

For Alex Smith, 2011 was a breakout season.

Will the 2012 season finally be the year he breaks out of his pigeon hole?

The San Francisco 49ers veteran quarterback, who led San Francisco to a 13-3 regular-season record and the NFC West title, was ranked as the No. 16 QB in the NFL recently by ESPN analyst (and former NFL quarterback) Ron Jaworski.

Jaworski of course cited all of Smith’s pluses from 2011, including his performance in the playoff victory over the Saints – which included a terrific touchdown pass to Vernon Davis – and his low turnover rate.

But, of course, there was this line: “Smith was managed brilliantly by first-year head coach Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh perfectly understood his quarterback’s strengths and limitations.”

The word “limitations” often has been tagged on Smith ever since he was taken by the 49ers with the first overall pick of the 2005 NFL Draft out of Utah.

He has all the physical tools – a strong arm, good speed, intelligence and a 6-foot-4, 217-pound frame – but as he struggled through a series of head coaches and offensive coordinators in his first six seasons in the league, Smith often was ridiculed for his inconsistent performance, inability to protect the ball or live up to high expectations.

In 2011, however, that changed when Harbaugh took the job, put his faith in Smith and was rewarded with Smith’s best season.

Though Smith’s career quarterback rating is 76.4, his rating in 2011 was 90.7. He threw 17 TD passes against just five interceptions and performed especially well in the fourth quarter of several games, leading the Niners to victories.

But Smith’s performance came in an offense that was conservative and ground-oriented. With a great defense and special teams, the 49ers didn’t take enormous risks on offense in 2011, knowing they could stay with any team using a conservative approach.

So, while the Niners earned accolades last season, and Harbaugh was voted the NFL’s Coach of the Year, Smith still has his critics and those who likely will never believe he’s an elite quarterback until he lights up defenses for 300- and 400-yard passing games while winning 40-35 shootouts.

Now, with the 2012 season approaching, Smith has 1) a better and deeper corps of wide receivers; 2) a better understanding of the offense after a season with Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman; 3) Harbaugh’s complete confidence; and 5) a team that still has one of the best defenses in the league and a special teams unit second to none.

Yet no one should expect to see Smith throwing the ball on every down or trying to throw for more yards in Game 1 against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers.

That’s simply not the 49ers’ style. Smith could probably lead his team to another 13-3 record – or perhaps even the Super Bowl -- and still read about his shortcomings.

Though Jaworski broke out the “limitations” word, his assessment of Smith was mostly flattering. In watching and assessing Smith’s performance in 2011, he saw mostly how much Smith had improved, not how much he still needs to improve.

Jaworski cited Smith’s ability to read defenses, make pressure throws when he needed them and his strength in limiting turnovers. The touchdown throw against the Saints to Davis, that sent San Francisco to the NFC Championship Game, was a play that “showed his development as a quarterback,” said Jaworski.

“That’s as good as it gets, folks,” said Jaworski, showing the video clip. “The throw made this touchdown. You know what offensive coaches always emphasize? Run the offense the way it is structured and designed. Alex Smith did that with great efficiency. He’s not the most physically gifted and talented thrower in the league, but he played at a very high level in 2011, and I expect the same in 2012.”

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