Alex Smith, the quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, has heard things said about him that would make a grandmother shudder. From the moment he was drafted out of Utah, people screamed that he was a system quarterback, and that his success was largely in part to Utah head coach Urban Meyer's spread offense. Even though some decried him as a traditional drop back quarterback, the San Francisco 49ers made Smith the number one pick of the 2005 NFL Draft.
It was a draft that will be remembered as the one Aaron Rodgers, the quarterback from Cal, slipped from being a possible number one pick to 24th overall. As Aaron Rodgers was groomed behind legend Brett Favre in Green Bay, Smith was thrust into the role of the 49ers starting quarterback by week five. He would finish the year throwing 11 interceptions with only one touchdown.
In 2006, the 49ers hired Norv Turner to be the offensive coordinator, and Smith was named the starter before the season. The 49ers also drafted a stud tight end from Maryland, Vernon Davis, with the 6th overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft, to add another weapon to the offense.
During the 2006 campaign, Smith showed flashes of brilliance and improvement in all aspects of his game. With second year running back Frank Gore, Davis and Smith running the show, San Francisco posted a 7-9 record, an improvement over their 4-12 record in 2005. Smith finished the year 257 of 442 for 2890 yards with 16 touchdowns and 16 interceptions.
With the young nucleus forming in San Francisco, there was a lot of excitement building up to the 2007 season. The 49ers had selected All-American linebacker Patrick Willis from the University of Mississippi with the 11th overall pick in that year’s draft, helping shore up their improving defense. Even with a third offensive coordinator in three years, many analysts had pegged them as the "dark horse" in the NFC West before the start of the year.
San Francisco opened up the 2007 season going 2-1, with their lost being an away game in Heinz Field against the Pittsburgh Steelers. What was looking to be a promising season, unraveled the next week against the Seattle Seahawks. After getting sacked in the first quarter, Smith suffered a grade-three separation on his throwing arm shoulder. He would miss significant time due to the injury and the 49ers would finish the season with a record of 5-11. One of their lone bright sports was the rookie Willis who won the 2007 AP NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Things would not get brighter for Smith. He was supplanted as starter by J.T. O'Sullivan and relegated to a backup role. After feeling immense pain during practice, it was discovered that he had a broken bone in his shoulder. On September 10, 2008 Smith was placed on the injured reserve, ending his season before it could really start.
The marriage seemed like it was coming to an end. The 49ers front office had made it known that they would release Smith before the 2009 season due to the enormity of his contract. Before the hatchet was dropped, San Francisco and Smith agreed to restructure his contract for the remaining two years. The 49ers continued adding play makers through the draft when they selected star wide receiver Michael Crabtree from Texas Tech with their first round pick in the 2009 NFL Draft.
Smith and the 49ers would continue to struggle in the 2009 and 2010 seasons, posting a combined 14-18 record with no playoff appearances. After the 2010 season, comparisons were inevitable. Aaron Rodgers, the quarterback from Cal who was passed over by San Francisco, had just led his Green Bay Packers to a Super Bowl XLV victory. Rodgers had excelled in every season since being named starter and was named MVP of the Super Bowl.
Confidence in Smith waned in most corners throughout the globe, but one man had confidence in the oft maligned quarterback: new head coach Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh had faith that Smith could successfully run his offensive scheme. In the 2011 season, it all paid off.
San Francisco, led by Smith, would finish the season 13-3, winning the NFC West. With their weapons Gore, Crabtree and Davis helping shoulder the load, they advanced to the NFC Championship game where they lost to the eventual Super Bowl Champion New York Giants in overtime 20-17.
Hopes are high for the 2012 season. San Francisco opened the season against the Green Bay Packers and the quarterback it passed on, Rodgers. The 49ers dominated the week one match up on both sides of the ball, winning 30-22. Yet, after their success in 2011 and their opening week victory, there were still doubters.
On Sunday night, in Candlestick Park during a highly anticipated match up with the Detroit Lions, those doubts were erased. First it was a beautiful 21 yard touchdown strike from Smith to tight end Vernon Davis in the 1st quarter that put them up 7-0.
On their opening drive of the 2nd half, Smith led them to a FG on a 10 play, 62 yard drive that increased their lead to 17-6. After Detroit kicker Jason Hanson made his fourth FG of the night, the lead was only 20-12 with a little over nine minutes to play in the 4th quarter.
Smith saved his best for last. He led San Francisco on a 13 play, 79 yard drive where he converted three 3rd and longs. The drive ended on a 23 yard touchdown pass from Smith to Davis, their second of the evening. The defense, led by Willis and second year linebacker Aldon Smith, held Detriot to 296 total yards and made countless stops when needed. Gore finished the game with 17 carries for 89 yards with one touchdown and Davis had five receptions for 73 yards and two touchdowns. Most importantly, Smith played like the quarterback that San Francisco envisioned when they selected him with their number one pick those many years ago. He finished the game 20 of 31 for 226 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions.
The critics and analysts will be quick to praise him but Smith knows how quickly fortunes come and go. A perennial "dark horse" candidate in the NFC West, San Francisco has now turned into a NFC powerhouse. With arguably the league's best defense, there are now whispers of a Super Bowl. Smith is happy with the team's success and that he is one of the key parts. Instead of the past years where many were left to wonder "what if", this may be the year where they stand on the turf at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, after Super Bowl XLVII, and say "about time".