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Smith will have to be more than game manager for Niners to beat Saints

by | CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist
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Alex Smith seems to have finally found the right pro coach to bring out his talent. (Getty Images)  
Alex Smith seems to have finally found the right pro coach to bring out his talent. (Getty Images)  

Three of the four quarterbacks left in the NFC playoffs are Super Bowl MVPs.

Then there's San Francisco's Alex Smith.

He's the one quarterback with something to prove this weekend, and what he must prove is that he's more than a hood ornament on a 49ers' team that can beat you with its defense and with running back Frank Gore ... and that might beat you with Alex Smith.

Granted, he quarterbacked the 49ers to a division championship, a 13-3 record and a first-round bye -- and, yeah, I think that's great. But, unlike the Saints' Drew Brees, the Giants' Eli Manning and Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, there's still a feeling that Smith is more of a quarterback who manages his position than excels at it; that he's not someone who can beat you.

"You can make the parallel with the 2000 Baltimore Ravens," said one head coach who opposed Smith this season, "in that he's made a little like Trent Dilfer. The one big difference, of course, is that he can have success with his feet. Other than that, he doesn't have to do much. As long as [the 49ers] aren't down, which they haven't much this season, he can stay within the game plan."

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And the game plan this season has been to rely on Gore, the team's star running back; the NFC's premier defense and the league's leading scorer, kicker David Akers, who set an NFL record with 44 field goals. That usually left Smith in a position where he didn't have to win games; he just had to make sure not to lose them.

You think I'm kidding? The 49ers attempted fewer passes than everyone but Denver. Of the league's top 20 ranked quarterbacks, Smith had the fewest touchdown passes (17) of anyone with 14 or more starts. His average gain of 7.06 yards was the lowest among the league's top 15 passers, and his five interceptions were the fewest, period, of the NFL's top 34 passers.

Predictably, the 49ers ranked 29th in passing, but so what? Smith had his best season ever, and the club had its best season since 1997 when it advanced to the conference championship game.

Now, there's talk of San Francisco re-signing him, with coach Jim Harbaugh stepping up to endorse the idea, and that seems like a no-brainer. I mean, all he did was steer the club to its first winning year since 2002 and solidify a position that has been a revolving door since Jeff Garcia exited eight years ago.

Besides, look what happened when Baltimore moved on from Dilfer after winning Super Bowl XXXV. It took the Ravens years to recover.

"I think he's underappreciated," said another head coach who faced Smith. "But it's too early to say if he is what he is. I think how we look at Alex Smith is going to depend on what he does the next two or three years. You want to see how far he can take this team."

Which means Smith's career is about to take a turn with his first playoff appearance. No longer do we view him as a bust or underachiever. Now, he's someone who may, just may, be on the verge of moving to the next level and becoming the quarterback the 49ers envisioned when they made him the first pick of the 2005 draft.

In some respects, Smith's career mirrors that of Brees. Both were drafted as future franchise quarterbacks. Both languished through years of mediocrity. Both watched their teams exercise high draft picks on replacements. And both responded immediately with career seasons that launched their teams to the playoffs.

For Brees, success happened in his fourth season in San Diego when he led the Chargers to their first playoff berth in 10 years. For Smith, it happened in his seventh year with the 49ers, or after virtually everyone but Harbaugh had given up on him.

"He's a more confident player now," one coach said of Smith. "He feels like he doesn't have to win games, so that it's not all on his shoulders. They can beat you with their defense and they can beat you by running the ball, and that's a nice feeling for a quarterback. You don't worry that one mistake will kill you.

"He hasn't been exposed because, usually, they're not playing from behind, so he doesn't have to take chances throwing the ball. He's the perfect fit for their philosophy, and their philosophy is that we're going to play really good defense and run well, and let's see what happens."

What happens is that the 49ers are two victories from their first Super Bowl since 1994 when luminaries like Steve Young, Jerry Rice, Brent Jones and Ricky Watters led them. That team was explosive and could score from anywhere -- as it demonstrated in Super Bowl XXIX when Young hit Rice with a 44-yard touchdown pass on the game's third play.

These 49ers are not built that way. They beat you with a defense that was first vs. the run, tied for first in takeaways and was second in points allowed. And they beat you with an offense that committed fewer turnovers (10) than anyone out there.

They seldom beat you with their quarterback.

"My question," said one coach, "is what happens when he has to play from behind? Most of the time this season that wasn't the case. It's not very often that he was put in a position where he had to go and win a game for them. That's why I wonder about him here."

That's why everyone wonders about Alex Smith here.

The 49ers are up against one of the league's most prolific offenses ever, and it will take more than avoiding mistakes to win. It will take making plays and producing touchdowns. I know, I know, Smith did that when the 49ers, sans Frank Gores, outlasted the New York Giants, and he brought them back in fourth-quarter defeats of Philadelphia and Detroit -- both on the road.

But these aren't the Giants or Eagles or Lions. These are the mighty New Orleans Saints, and there's a reason the home team is a 3-1/2-point underdog. Nobody trusts the 49ers' offense -- or Alex Smith -- to trade shots with Drew Brees.

"He can run, and that can make it difficult on defenses," a coach said of Smith. "If the 49ers can create turnovers and make big plays they can win. Do I think that happens? No. I just don't know how Alex Smith keeps them in this one, especially if they fall behind."

That sounds like a challenge to me. It should to Alex Smith, too.

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