Alex Cool? Smith leads NFL in comebacks

Grading Alex Smith's play during the San Francisco 49ers' 6-1 start has become one of the more fascinating pursuits of this 2011 NFC West season.

Smith, long a divisive subject among 49ers fans, remains one even during the team's best start since 1998.

It's easy to see why.

Smith ranks among the top 10 quarterbacks in NFL passer rating. He has led three fourth-quarter comeback victories, all on the road. Yet he ranks only 18th in yards per attempt and 24th in yards per game. And despite occasionally setting a high standard for Total QBR, Smith ranks only 24th in the ESPN statistic measuring how quarterbacks impact their teams' chances for winning.

We've had almost as much fun debating the merits of QBR as we've had debating all things Smith, but any quarterback stat ranking Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Drew Brees above all others, with Tim Tebow dead last, must be onto something.

Let's set aside the stats for a moment. Fourth-quarter comeback victories have long served as the measure of a quarterback's mettle. Pro Football Reference has done outstanding work in defining and validating them. From their work, we're able to see all fourth-quarter comeback victories for the 49ers since 1960. We can also generate a list for all NFL quarterbacks this season -- a list showing Smith atop the NFL with three, all on the road.

The chart breaks down 2011 fourth-quarter comeback victories by quarterback and venue. Smith and the New York Giants lead the league with three. Smith is the only one with three on the road. A quick look at them:

  • At Cincinnati, Week 3: With the 49ers trailing 6-3 in the fourth quarter, Smith completes 4 of 8 passes for 48 yards during a 10-play, 72-yard touchdown drive. The 49ers win the game, 13-8.

  • At Philadelphia, Week 4: The 49ers won this one in the fourth quarter on the strength of their running game and defense. Smith completed 9 of 9 passes for 179 yards and two touchdowns in the third quarter, when the 49ers erased most of a 20-point deficit. He completed 4 of 8 passes for 22 yards, no first downs and a sack in the final 15 minutes.

  • At Detroit, Week 6: Smith and the passing game struggled most of the way, but with the game on the line, Smith found Delanie Walker for the go-ahead touchdown on a fourth-down play with 1:56 remaining.

Now, on to the chart ...

2011 NFL Fourth-quarter Comeback Victories: By QB