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Manage this: Niners' Smith out to prove his critics wrong

by | CBSSports.com
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Alex Smith has often been subject to 'he manages the game' faint praise. (Getty Images)  
Alex Smith has often been subject to 'he manages the game' faint praise. (Getty Images)  

SAN FRANCISCO -- Now that the divisional round of the playoffs are upon us and the wheat has been by-and-large separated from the chaff, it's comforting to look at the bracket, particularly on the NFC side of the ledger, and see that four powerhouse teams are left, and that they just so happen to employ the four most consistent passers in the conference.

There's Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers (the favorite to win the Most Valuable Player award), New York's Eli Manning, New Orleans' Drew Brees, and, of course, San Francisco's Alex Smith.

Wait, what?

Like that game we used to play on Sesame Street, "One of these things is not like the others."

Smith, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 draft, who came into this season with a 19-31 career record as a starter for the 49ers, has long been derided as one of the bigger draft busts in NFL history, with his name linked to such luminaries as JaMarcus Russell, Ryan Leaf and Tim Couch. Really, the only difference between those guys and Smith, according to most pundits anyway, is that the teams who drafted those other failed quarterbacks had the good sense to cut bait after two or three miserable years. The 49ers, on the other hand, stubbornly held onto Smith, refusing to admit they erred in not drafting Rodgers. To make the story even sadder, Smith almost seemed to relish being a punching bag, twice passing up chances (including this past offseason) to leave San Francisco for fresh starts in greener pastures.

"I guess from my upbringing -- I think I get it from my father -- just because it might be the easy thing to do, doesn't mean it's the right thing to do," Smith explained to the San Jose Mercury News. "I just kind of felt it was the easy way out -- 'Well, I'll just leave and go somewhere else.' Like, basically, (indicating) that it was their fault, it wasn't me. I felt that would've been the mentality with that decision."

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While the video game numbers that Rodgers, Brees and New England's Tom Brady have put up this season have drawn most of the media attention and whatever was left over has gone to a certain demigod in Denver, Smith, the laughingstock quarterback who refused to quit on himself and his team, has quietly put up a 13-3 campaign and is one of the leading contenders for the league's Comeback Player of the Year award (which certainly raises the question of whether he's even eligible for the honor since he never had a peak from which to drop into a valley).

The style of football the 49ers play under new coach Jim Harbaugh, who's the first to admit that he's received far too much credit for the team's success, is decidedly unsexy and fairly similar to the offense Harbaugh ran during his four-year tenure at Stanford. Contrary to popular perception, even with Andrew Luck, the best pro quarterback prospect since Peyton Manning, the Cardinal were very much a run-first team under Harbaugh, preferring to strike with play-action routes to tight ends off run formations rather than the shotgun spread that's commonplace in the college game, and, increasingly, the NFL.

Smith, who started all 16 games this season, finished with a mere 3,144 passing yards (the first time in his career he's cracked the 3,000-yard mark). He didn't have one 300-yard passing day all year. Contrast that to Brees, the quarterback he'll be facing on Saturday, who passed for 2,332 more yards, who completed more passes than Smith attempted this season and who threw for more touchdowns in December (19) than Smith did all year (17).

The combination of Harbaugh's hire, the 49ers' ferocious turnover-creating defense and Smith's modest stats have all conspired to give the pundits who've ridiculed Smith his whole career very little credit for the team's remarkable turnaround. Before a mid-November game against the Giants, he was tagged with the "game manager" label, which is a backhanded compliment for any quarterback. After outplaying Eli Manning in the 49ers' 27-20 win, Smith, who's had a markedly different edge to him on and off the field this season, shot back, saying "I just saw that I got called a manager and this and that. It feels good to be 8-1. I managed myself into a victory."

While Smith's stats aren't prolific, he hasn't gotten enough credit for the things he has done well, like taking care of the ball and consistently moving the offense in position to score, even if it's three points more often than it is seven (kicker David Akers converted a single-season NFL record 44 field goals). Even though the 49ers finished 26th in offense and 29th in passing, they were a respectable 11th in the league in scoring, at 23.8 points per game. Smith led the league in fewest interceptions with five and the 49ers tied league single-season records for fewest interceptions (five) and fewest turnovers (10, tying the 2010 Patriots). Smith had the fewest interceptions in franchise history, the third-best touchdown-to-interception ratio in franchise history (Steve Young topped his 3.4:1 mark in 1992 and 1994) and the third-best interception percentage in NFL history.

What's gotten overlooked most in the season Smith's had is that when he's had to put the team on his shoulders, he's done so, and well. He authored five fourth-quarter comeback wins this season, including four on the road. He's also gotten some impressive skins on his belt, besting quarterbacks like Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Matthew Stafford and Michael Vick.

Still, the rested 49ers are home underdogs to the Saints, largely because of the Grand Canyon-sized gap in perception between Brees and Smith. Few experts think Smith can "manage" himself into the 30 points, give or take an Akers kick, it will take to topple New Orleans.

"I don't know," Smith snapped when asked what the odds were of him finishing with more passing yards than Brees on Saturday. "I don't care. I'm just interested in outscoring him. He can throw for as many yards as he wants."

Smith will be a free agent once again this offseason. Again, he is expected to re-up with the Niners. A win against Brees and Co. and far fewer folks will blame either party for wanting to extend their relationship. Regardless of how the game turns out, Smith will get little of the credit if the 49ers win and much of the blame if they don't. How can anyone be expected to handle such a burden?

It's Alex Smith. He'll manage.

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