As the San Francisco 49ers sit at 8-1 and firmly atop the NFC West, Jim Harbaugh has touted Alex Smith as an elite quarterback. Although no one is ready to proclaim him as the next Joe Montana or Steve Young, the thought of Smith joining the ranks of the elite is not as implausible as it appeared a few months ago.
Harbaugh has transformed Smith from the quarterback who struggled in his first six seasons after being taken No. 1 overall in 2005 to a star this season. Here are a few thoughts on how it's happened.
Smith is feeding off Harbaugh's swagger
Since the day he took over the 49ers, Harbaugh has backed Smith as the team's franchise quarterback. Harbaugh has propped up his QB at every turn and made it abundantly clear that he believed Smith could be a difference-maker.
While it seemed like another case of a coach attempting to build confidence in a player, the strong show of support certainly helped foster a relationship between Harbaugh and Smith. That trust is often overlooked, but it can have a significant impact on getting the maximum return from a player.
Smith has also benefited from Harbaugh's decision to put the ball in his hands early in games. Although the perception of the 49ers is that they operate under a run-first premise, the numbers suggest Smith is an integral part of the plan. San Francisco typically opens up the game passing before turning to the run in the second half.
In looking at their recent win over the New York Giants, the 49ers called passes on 20 of their first 26 plays. Smith went 12 of 17 in the first half and his accuracy made the Giants have to think twice about loading the box to stop Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter. With eight defenders often near the line of scrimmage, Smith was able to quickly get into a rhythm by connecting on high-percentage passes, which gave him the confidence to make big throws in the game's late stages.
The playbook is tailored to fit Smith's game
It's often been said that good coaches mold their offense around the talents of their best players, and Harbaugh has done a terrific job of building the playbook to fit Smith's game.
The 49ers have featured movement and play-action passes, while also mixing in some quick-rhythm throws that fit Smith's skill set. The movement passes, in particular, have allowed him to use his athleticism to get on the perimeter to make high-percentage throws on crossing routes over the middle. They have also routinely slipped running backs and tight ends into the flat on these plays to give Smith an easy target to hit on the move. Much like good shooters in basketball benefit from getting a few easy scores early in games, these safe passes build confidence and allow Smith to quickly work into a rhythm.
Take a look at Smith's two-point conversion to Michael Crabtree. The 49ers motioned into a three-receiver bunch formation with Crabtree running immediately into the flat. Smith executed a half-roll to the right upon taking the snap and delivered a strike to the front corner of the end zone. With Crabtree unimpeded in the flat thanks to picks by Ted Ginn and Braylon Edwards, the 49ers got an easy conversion.
Harbaugh has also put Smith in a position to succeed by incorporating double moves by the receivers. Frequently calling "stop-and-go" routes or "out-and-ups" gives the 49ers a chance at a big play on a deceptive but easy throw. This encourages Smith to push the ball downfield without taking the risk that normally accompanies vertical throws.
Davis and Walker have become Smith's primary targets
As much as Crabtree or Edwards would love to occupy the No. 1 receiver role, tight ends Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker have emerged as Smith's favorite targets. The duo has accounted for 35 percent of Smith completions and their ability to consistently win over the middle has allowed him to pick apart opponents with high-percentage passes.
While most teams typically rely on an outside receiver to anchor the passing game, the 49ers' reliance on their tight ends has made the game easier for Smith. He has always been more comfortable throwing between the hashes, so having targets adept at working over the middle has given him favorable options.
Davis, who leads the team with 34 receptions for 379 yards, is a big target with the speed and athleticism to run away from safeties or linebackers on crossing routes. He also has the size to post up smaller defenders in traffic, which gives Smith a bigger area to target in critical situations.
Walker, the team's third-leading receiver, has emerged as a weapon in the red zone. As the H-Back in the offense, he also possesses the frame and ability to create mismatches when he's used as a wing or displaced from the end of the line. With linebackers lacking the quickness to stick with him on the outside and corners lacking the size or strength to hold up in one-on-one situations near the end zone, Walker has become an outlet for Smith when opponents attempt to take away Davis with double coverage.