Alex Smith is not a great quarterback. In his first six seasons, the No. 1 pick of the 2005 NFL Draft has failed to live up to expectations and caused headaches for many 49er fans. But in his seventh season, Smith has been a solid and efficient quarterback, leading the 49ers to their first 6-1 start since 1998.
Much of Smith's prior struggles, and the 49ers' offensive incompetence, can be attributed to the six different offensive coordinators the 49ers had during his first six seasons. Learning a new offense each season prevented Smith from getting comfortable, and it showed. He lacked timing with his receivers and was inaccurate throwing the ball downfield.
This year has been different for Smith and the 49ers. Smith has only thrown two interceptions through seven games and has a passer rating of 95.7, well above is career rating of 74.7. While statistically the offense is still one of the most inferior offenses in the league, the 49ers are doing enough to win games, all thanks to first-year head coach Jim Harbaugh.
Harbaugh's offensive gameplan focuses on the offense's strengths and limiting mistakes. That means a healthy dose of running backs Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter to wear down defenses with the sixth-best rushing attack.
The running game has set things up for Smith in the passing game, where play action has given him more time to throw the ball. In addition, Harbaugh has not asked too much of Smith, focusing on efficient throws and creative play-calling that keeps opposing defenses guessing.
During the 49ers' Week 8 win over the Cleveland Browns, Smith found eligible linemen twice for sizable gains on play action passes. Smith first hit offensive tackle Joe Staley for 17 yards and then found defensive lineman Isaac Sopoaga in the second half for 18 yards. Neither throw was difficult to make, but both resulted in big gains and put the 49ers in scoring position.
The offensive playbook has also seen the addition of the slant route, something that has been absent from the 49ers offense in recent years. The route allows receivers to create separation from defensive backs, giving Smith a quick and easy target to throw to in man coverage.
The last time the 49ers were this creative in their play-calling, current San Diego Chargers head coach Norv Turner was the team's offensive coordinator.
Things have not been all positive with Smith. He is still overthrowing receivers at times and has been out of sync with wide receiver Michael Crabtree. Against the Browns, Smith had Crabtree wide open down the sideline but simply threw it too far.
Whereas the offense has lacked explosiveness, the defense has made up for it. This was most notable in Week 6 against the Detroit Lions. While the 49ers' offense could not muster much positive yardage, the defense repeatedly stifled the Lions' potent offense and forced punts. The 49ers' offense eventually came through when it mattered most, and Smith completed a fourth and goal pass to tight end Delanie Walker to win the game.
Smith is far from being an elite quarterback, but Harbaugh's offensive gameplan put Smith and the 49ers in a position to succeed. That is something they haven't had in a long time.