SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- At a time when so many NFL quarterbacks are posting outrageous numbers, one of the more noteworthy performances of 2011 is being conducted by a quarterback who actually isn't.
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith doesn't have Aaron Rodgers' statistics, nor does he have Cam Newton's promise. What he does have going for him are two things people in that franchise have long waited to see: consistency, and the kind of unsung contributions that have helped the 49ers jump off to a surprising 6-1 start.
Smith's success is all the more stunning because he was supposed to be finished with the 49ers by now. He'd never lived up to the expectations of being the top pick in the 2005 NFL draft, and he'd watched two head coaches booted out of the organization in six years. If first-year coach Jim Harbaugh really wanted to clean house, he would've sent Smith packing as well. Instead, Harbaugh saw something in the seventh-year veteran that really fit with this vision for the 49ers.
It isn't just that Smith's numbers have been good enough to make him the league's ninth-rated passer thus far (he's completed 63.2 percent of his passes with nine touchdowns and two interceptions). It's that he's finally found a coach who's asked him to be a cog in the wheel instead of the star of the show.
"I definitely felt like there were times in the past when I was expected to go out and win the game here," said Smith, whose current passer rating of 95.7 far surpasses his career rating of 74.7. "And that would lead to me forcing passes and making mistakes. Now the expectations are totally different. Sometimes it might be ugly but it's just about getting the job done. It's nice to focus on that instead of my quarterback rating."
It's not hard to see why Smith feels more comfortable these days. He's got a head coach who actually understands how to get the most out of his ability, with Harbaugh having carved out a 15-year NFL career by doing all the blue-collar things he now asks of Smith. Harbaugh never cared about style points during his days as a quarterback. His only concern was finding the best possible way to kick the butt of whoever lined up across from his team.
In fact, one of the best qualities Smith had going for him when Harbaugh arrived last January was a mental toughness the coach clearly admires. Smith had been maligned by the media, betrayed by one head coach (Mike Nolan), baffled by another (Mike Singletary) and exposed to seven offensive coordinators during his career. Yet Smith never used the 49ers' dysfunction as an easy excuse for his failings. Every time a new season kicked off, he lined up with the intention of making the most of whatever chance he earned.
That type of resilience often goes overlooked in today's NFL. Too many people judge quarterbacks solely on 300-yard games or the kind of jaw-dropping highlights that can fill up Sports Science segments. Harbaugh deserves credit for realizing that Smith could be every bit the game manager he needed. Smith, in return, deserves respect for understanding that results mean more than job descriptions at this point in his career.
Smith would be the first to acknowledge the 49ers are winning because they like banging. They lean on a tough defense, reliable special teams and the power running of Frank Gore, all the while asking Smith to avoid costly mistakes in a passing game that ranks 31st in the league. The easy stance to take is that Harbaugh doesn't trust his air attack to do the job. The smarter take is that he's playing to his team's strengths while putting Smith in a position of comfort.
Smith has delivered in many subtle ways for the 49ers. When Harbaugh couldn't have any contact with his players during the lockout, it was Smith -- who wasn't even under contract at the time -- who taught the coach's system to teammates during organized workouts.
When everybody was focusing on the postgame drama between Harbaugh and Detroit coach Jim Schwartz following the 49ers' 25-19 win over the Lions on Oct. 16, the fact that Smith threw the game-winning touchdown pass on a fourth-down play became a secondary storyline. Even now, Smith's appeal as a Comeback Player of the Year candidate isn't garnering nearly as much buzz as it should.
Not that he cares about any of these slights. Smith is and should be thankful for just one thing: that Harbaugh was willing to let him compete for the job.
"He told me he was going to bring in the best three quarterbacks he could when I first met him," Smith said. "The only thing he offered me was an opportunity, which was all I wanted."
Actually, it's quite likely Smith wanted a little more than that. He surely coveted the success the 49ers are now experiencing, thanks to a combination of confidence and competence that had been lacking under previous regimes. He also has to be happy about the chemistry that is building as the team keeps stringing more wins together.
The fact that Smith's future remains uncertain -- the team used a second-round pick on rookie Colin Kaepernick in April -- shouldn't be a distraction right now. As Smith surely learned long ago, all he can do is play his best while somebody else makes the hard personnel decisions.
Regardless of where Smith ends up after the season, he already knows this year has been his most rewarding as a pro. As he said, "Unfortunately, there's a lot of crap that comes with playing in the NFL, but this year it's all about [playing] ball."
Smith is fortunate Harbaugh kept him around for what has been a fun ride so far. In return, he's given the 49ers a kind of leadership that has been far too easy to overlook.
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.