|While Alex Smith outduels Aaron Rodgers in Week 1, it's the same Alex Smith we witnessed last season. (AP)|
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Aaron Rodgers usually is recognized as the best quarterback ... or, at least, the best young quarterback ... in today's game, and he should be. The guy is talented, productive and a Super Bowl winner. But tell me this: If he's the gold standard, what does that make Alex Smith?
Because Alex Smith not only outplayed Rodgers in Sunday's 30-22 defeat of Green Bay, he outplayed Steve Young and Jeff Garcia and Elvis Grbac, too. Those former 49ers quarterbacks were part of the franchise's eight-game losing streak at Lambeau Field that Smith ended, and, yeah, I think that's significant.
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Whenever you hear people talk about San Francisco they usually talk about Alex Smith as the one factor that can and, maybe, will drag the team down. Only he didn't last year. And he won't this season, and his latest performance tells us why.
Because he and his offense should be better than they were in 2011.
For only the second time in his pro career, Smith operates in the same offensive scheme run by the same coordinator. The first time that happened (2010), Jimmy Raye lasted three games into the second season before he was cashiered -- so Smith didn't go much beyond one year with the same guy.
But he will now, and you saw what happened Sunday. He outplayed Aaron Rodgers.
He didn't throw for as many yards but had as many touchdown passes. He spread the ball around more. He wasn't flustered. He didn't make a mistake. And, most important, he won. Sound familiar? It should. That was the Alex Smith of 2011, the Alex Smith critics said would not re-appear this fall.
Well, they're wrong.
"He went out and played with a lot of confidence," said tight end Vernon Davis. "He didn't back down. He was Alex Smith today. He did the same thing that he did last year to help us win."
Some people will say that's nothing, but they're mistaken. It was Alex Smith who hit Randy Moss with the touchdown pass that put the 49ers up by 10 early. It was Alex Smith who found Davis with a scoring pass into a tight window in the third period. And it was Alex Smith who held fast in the face of a Green Bay pass rush that produced four sacks.
Most important, it was Alex Smith who didn't screw up. It was Rodgers who did, and the damage was severe: His interception led to a game-clinching touchdown.
"Did you have the better quarterback out there?" Davis was asked.
"I think I've had the better quarterback all training camp," he said. "The same guy I've seen today is the same guy I've seen in training camp. I didn't see anything different."
That is good for San Francisco. Smith has only five interceptions in his past 19 starts (including the playoffs), and when you have a defense as tough, as physical and as intimidating as San Francisco's, that will take you a long way. For that reason, Smith sometimes gets referred to as a "game manager," a term Smith keeps demonstrating doesn't fit.
"I hope we're just continuing to build off what we did last year," he said, "and that's the goal. I don't know how many times you heard me say this: We're going to take pride in the fact that we're balanced. We're not going to be predictable. We're not going to be one-dimensional. We've got a lot of different guys who can do a lot of different things, and we're going to use them."
So we just witnessed.
The last time we saw him he completed exactly one pass to a wide receiver in the conference championship loss to the New York Giants, and that was for three yards. So the 49ers went out and signed Super Bowl hero Mario Manningham, talked Randy Moss out of retirement and drafted A.J. Jenkins, and now look: Smith completes 15 of 17 passes aimed at Moss, Manningham and Michael Crabtree, and the 49ers break the Lambeau jinx.
You can credit a lot of people, but when passing out the accolades don't forget the team's quarterback. Granted, he's not Joe Montana or Young, but he doesn't have to be. He just has to be as good as he was last season.
Only he wasn't Sunday. He was better. In fact, for one day, at least, he was better than the guy who's supposed to be the benchmark for all young quarterbacks in the NFL.
"He's a top quarterback in my book," said running back Frank Gore. "Look at his career. People who know football should understand how tough it is for a quarterback to have five or six coordinators. Now you see him grow in the same offense, and I'm happy for him."
His coaches and teammates should be, too. The 49ers flirted with the idea of signing free-agent Peyton Manning in the offseason, but, in the end, made the right decision with the right guy. They returned to Alex Smith because Alex Smith is as good for them as they are for him ... and he just proved it.
"All he can do is move forward," Davis said. "I have a lot of confidence in Alex. A lot of people didn't believe in him, but I did. I knew what he could do. Whatever is going to happen for Alex is going to happen. Everybody can say what they want, but at the end of the day it'll happen for him."