|Mark J. Rebilas/US Presswire|
|Alex Smith absolutely torched the Arizona Cardinals on Monday, guiding the San Francisco 49ers to an easy win.|
That notion, a year-and-a-half into the Jim Harbaugh era, is not a new one.
Now, raise your hand if you knew that Alex Smith has the fourth-highest passer rating in football. Or that he owns the NFL's best completion percentage. Or that he's ranked fifth in yards per completion.
All that is true about San Francisco's born-again quarterback. As is this:
If Smith plays like he did against that stingy Cardinal defense, the 49ers will be nearly impossible to beat.
And that goes for weekends in January and even the big Sunday in February.
We're only halfway through the regular season (57 days down, 59 days to go, as of Thursday), and the 2010 Green Bay Packers and 2011 New York Giants serve as valid reminders to exhibit patience before drawing grand conclusions, but this one seems obvious.
"His performance the other night was outstanding," offensive coordinator Greg Roman said from his office on Wednesday. "Having been in the system for a year-and-a-half, you can see him progressively getting more comfortable with his teammates, take ownership of the offense. It was just a great night at that position. It doesn't hurt that he's got some continuity now."
With Smith in his eighth NFL season, and still just 28 years old, wide-spread perception still holds that the quarterback's just along for the ride in Year 2 of the Harbaugh Niners. But that last comment from Roman can, for now, help break down the stereotyping of this quarterback who just produced one of the finest stat lines in recent memory on Monday night: 18-for-19, 232 passing yards, three touchdowns.
Roman's arrival two winters ago -- he came with Harbaugh from Stanford -- marked the ushering in of a seventh offensive coordinator in Smith's seven years with the 49ers. Not exactly ideal for the former first overall pick's development.
Roman immediately saw a quarterback playing rushed, a result of being told six different ways to play the position. So he made it a priority to emphasize fundamentals, narrow Smith's focus and let him go out and compete. That gave the coaches -- and the quarterback -- a base. And after that teardown, they've built back up. Roman didn't see Monday night as a culmination of all this -- more a display of Smith's capabilities.
"I see it as the day-to-day insidious results of doing the same stuff, not switching, and being able to keep moving forward," Roman said. "I don't think there's any doubt that's part of it. I don't see it as a coming of age. He had really good games last year, and a lot of wins. I think it was a really good outing by the offense -- guys made plays, everyone played well. For him, specifically, it's a result of time on task. But even when we got to the 49ers, he hadn't reached his potential, but there was a lot of good stuff there."
And while we all focus on quarterbacks, Roman is quick to add, "It wasn't just him, it was everyone. Vernon Davis, Frank Gore, they'd been in a bunch of systems, too. And all this is a function of the whole group. No matter how fast we could go with Alex, what was best for everyone was to start at square one. It's been a constant evolution from there, and he's right in step with all the rest of us."
The idea is for everyone to do be able to progressively do more, and that especially goes for Smith.
Roman gives Smith more latitude these days to check and audible at the line of scrimmage than he had in the past. In turn, Smith has felt more comfortable with his increased responsibilities, and that's meant more flexibility for everyone.
And speaking of doing more, the idea has also spilled down the depth chart at Smith's position, with Colin Kaepernick playing situationally in an effort to stress defenses with another athlete on the field. Roman calls the second-year pro "a classic understudy and a very focused kid," but hedges a bit when asked if Kaepernick, who's only three-and-a-half years younger than Smith, is the future for the Niners at the position.
"That remains to be seen," the offensive coordinator said about the future of the 35th overall pick in the 2011 draft. "I don't have a crystal ball. Right now, he's the backup, and that means he's only one play away. It could happen sooner than we'd expect, but we're not planning for it now. We'll see how it unfolds."
As a practical matter, the three-year contract Smith signed in March created a fork in the road that will be reached early next year. He's due a $1 million roster bonus next March, and if he's on the roster on April 1, his $7.5 million base salary for 2013 becomes guaranteed. In essence, that'll be an $8.5 million decision for the club with the salary cap expected to remain flat for another year.
Bottom line: If the Niners plan on Kaepernick becoming the starter in 2013, they probably don't pay that freight on Smith.
For now, though, it seems as if Smith is proving himself to be a pretty good option at the position again. And if he keeps moving forward, he's got a real shot at making that decision academic for the Niners, who scoff at the idea that their leader is simply a game manager.
"I'm a game manager," Roman said. "I do my best, Coach Harbaugh does his best at influencing the game in a managerial role through play calling. I don't look at anyone on the field as anything but a football player."
Asked further if managing the game is part of Smith's job, Roman seizes the opportunity to take further aim at the quarterback's critics.
"Those things fall under quarterbacking for the San Francisco 49ers, and he does a very good job of quarterbacking within that context," Roman said. "That's part of the role here. A lot of people look pretty throwing the ball. There's a lot more that goes into it than arm talent or being able to run fast. There's more that goes into that position than any other position in sports. What we look for is someone who can put all those things together. And Alex has done quite a fine job of that."
Players on the spot
Indianapolis Colts OT Anthony Castonzo: You can consider the 2011 first-round pick Bill Polian's final contribution to the club; a blindside bodyguard for Andrew Luck for, potentially, the next decade. Bruce Arians named him a game captain two weeks ago and said he's "really pleased with where he's at." And this week presents the kind of matchup premier left tackles are drafted for, with Miami Dolphins DE Cameron Wake screaming off Castonzo's side.
New York Giants S Antrel Rolle: Before he can make his impact against the Pittsburgh Steelers this week, Rolle must pass the NFL's concussion protocol. Assuming he does, the safety will play a huge role on Sunday. The Giants have to shore up the problem they encountered last week in covering Dallas Cowboys TE Jason Witten, who caught a hard-to-comprehend 18 balls on New York. I'll bet Todd Haley has Heath Miller licking his chops.
Baltimore Ravens OLB Terrell Suggs: Above all else, Suggs deserves a ton of respect for his remarkable return. But there's also this: That defense really needs him. The hope is that Suggs can help make up for the losses of Ray Lewis' leadership and Lardarius Webb's impact play. And now that the adrenaline of his first post-injury action has worn off, it's time for Suggs to go to work in both areas.
Philadelphia Eagles QB Mike Vick: At this point, as I wrote Tuesday, my belief is that Vick is hardly the biggest issue in Philly. But the simple fact that the club felt compelled to announce that he'd remain starter tells you how tenuous the situation is. I can't help but wonder what would be happening if Philadelphia's backup was Russell Wilson, whom the Eagles planned to draft in the third round until Seattle took him, rather than Nick Foles.
Coaches in the spotlight
Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Chris Palmer: Chris Johnson has rounded into form -- racking up 385 rushing yards and on just 58 carries (a 6.6-yard average) over his past three games -- but the going gets tougher against the Chicago Bears' top-ranked run defense. That means Palmer, who's been under fire in Nashville, will need to be imaginative in getting Johnson the ball, with a chance for the Titans to move into the wild-card race.
Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer: The Peyton Manning Express hits Southwestern Ohio this week, and that means the highly respected Zimmer has his work cut out for him. Before the season began, Zimmer's group was seen as one that could jump to an elite level. But eight weeks into the 2012 campaign, Cincy ranks 21st in total defense and 25th in points allowed. I think Zimmer's the man to fix the problem. Sunday would be a good time to start.
Something to spot on Thursday night
Any sign of life. Both Norv Turner and Romeo Crennel were on the proverbial hot seat going into last week's games. Neither the San Diego Chargers nor the Kansas City Chiefs showed much fight knowing that. And now we get the two teams going head-to-head on a short week. The Chargers remain in the playoff chase with a win. The Chiefs can keep their flagging hopes of a productive season alive. It'll be interesting to see the response from both groups in these circumstances.
The Buffalo Bills' defensive line. The Bills crashed a Brinks truck into Houston's roster to wrestle Mario Williams free, so a date with the Texans in Reliant Stadium seems like a seminal moment. Buffalo's star-studded group has severely underwhelmed, ranking dead last in run defense (allowing a staggering 6.0 yards per carry) and 15th in sacks per pass play. The bye came last week. It's time for this group to come a lot closer to expectations.
Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.