Reflections on Alex Smith's new contract

A three-year deal for Alex Smith accomplishes two things for the San Francisco 49ers.

It brings back Smith for at least one more season as the starter. That was the most important thing. There was no sense messing up a good thing prematurely and unnecessarily.

Also, the relatively short contract length and anticipated $24 million value affirms the gap between coach Jim Harbaugh's characterization of Smith as "elite" and how the market actually valued Smith.

There should be no surprises.

There's no way Harbaugh thought Smith, 27, was elite the way Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady is elite. As we discussed during an NFC West chat four months ago:

"Harbaugh knows an elite quarterback when he sees one and there's no way he thinks Alex Smith is elite the way Aaron Rodgers is elite. When Harbaugh spoke of Eli Manning as an elite quarterback, he marveled at things such as arm talent, stature in the pocket, rare physical ability, etc.

"When he refers to Smith as elite, I think he's talking about Smith's ability to carry out his assignments at high level. Those assignments are not as challenging as the assignments truly elite quarterbacks carry out. We'll know pretty soon what Harbaugh really thinks of Smith. The next contract Smith signs will tell us where he stands compared to quarterbacks earning elite QB money."

That next contract has come. We do not know all the details, but we should know an elite quarterback contract even from a distance, and this contract does not fit the profile.

The franchise tag for quarterbacks was worth $14.4 million per season. Peyton Manning signed for $19 million annually Tuesday. Brady earns $18 million per year. Smith will apparently come in closer to $8 million a year, a healthy raise from last season, but not enough to prevent the team from moving forward with Colin Kaepernick in the not-too-distant future.

The frustrating part for a quarterback in Smith's position would be seeing the Arizona Cardinals pay more than $12 million per season for Kevin Kolb, who had hardly played. Seattle just paid more than $6 million per season to Matt Flynn, who owns two career starts.

Of course, Smith himself has benefited from the same backward system, signing a six-year deal for nearly $50 million as a rookie.

Teams are willing to pay more for potential than for a player with known limits. Smith, though he improved last season and could continue to grow as a player, has a more clearly defined ceiling now than when he had not played. It's higher than it was one year ago, at least.

The contract won't mean as much as the 2012 season nears. Smith can proceed as the 49ers' starting quarterback. Harbaugh and Smith can put behind them any hard feelings that might linger from contract talks or the 49ers' pursuit of Manning.

Those hard feelings should not diminish what Smith helped the 49ers accomplish last season as the team went 13-3 and reached the NFC Championship Game. Nor should they stand in the way of future successes.

Time to move on.