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49ers' Smith remains hard to peg

The SportsXchange

Alex Smith has played 7 1/2 years with the San Francisco 49ers, yet it's hard to say who he really is as a quarterback.

For every statement that can be made about Smith, an equally good counterargument can be offered.

Some say the 49ers are not built for making comebacks. In their two losses this year against the Minnesota Vikings and New York Giants, the 49ers got down early, and there was no hint that Smith and the passing offense could overcome the deficit.

However, in last year's regular season, Smith brought the team back four times in the fourth quarter, tying a team record held by Hall of Famer Joe Montana. He did it again with his signature performance against the New Orleans Saints in the NFC divisional playoffs.

Some say that Smith is a game manager who doesn't air it out. Smith has topped 300 yards passing in a game only three times in his career. However, this year, he has made the big play and is averaging 7.9 yards per pass attempt, which ranks fifth in the league. The reason he hasn't compiled huge yards is he doesn't need to do that thanks' to the 49ers' prolific ground game, which leads the league in rushing yardage.

Some say Smith is the perfect quarterback for the 49ers because he stays away from turnovers and allows the running game, defense and special teams to win games. Smith threw only five interceptions all of season, for example.

However, Smith proved recently he can go through a turnover spat. In a two-game stretch, he threw four interceptions and just one touchdown pass.

Some say Smith is steady and can be relied upon for relatively mistake-free but unspectacular performances.

This year, Smith has been all over the place. He had games against the Buffalo Bills and Arizona Cardinals in which his passer rating was over 155. To start the season, he completed 40 of 57 passes for 437 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions in wins over the Green Bay Packers and New York Jets, compiling a passer rating of 115.9.

Later, he went through a two-game stretch that included a loss to the Giants and a win over the Seattle Seahawks in which he completed 33 of 53 passes for 340 yards. He had one touchdown and four interceptions for a rating of 55.5.

One reason for Smith's inconsistency might be the presence of new weapons. Smith takes a long time to get acclimated to new receivers, and he has two of them in Mario Manningham and Randy Moss, who are both explosive.

All of the developments are being watched closely by the 49ers' brass. The team needs to determine at the end of the season whether to pay Smith a healthy roster bonus in March, which would trigger the rest of his three-year contract.

Statistically, the answer would be yes. Since coach Jim Harbaugh's arrival, Smith has won 19 of 24 regular-season games, and he currently leads the league in completion percentage at 69.4 percent. He's also fourth in passer rating (102.1).

But Smith has also had ample help. Unlike previous years, Smith has been well-protected, particularly in the past two games. The running game is the league's best, and the defense is not far behind. The 49ers have to consider whether anyone could succeed at quarterback in those conditions.
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