SANTA CLARA, Calif. — If you take a look at San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith’s stats from the first eight games this season, they aren’t really big numbers you’d consider for your fantasy team.
In the first half of the season, Smith has thrown for 1,467 yards, 10 touchdowns, two interceptions for a very good 97.3 quarterback rating. Most of his passes this year aren’t really of the deep threat variety. But his efficient 64-percent completion percentage makes him very effective.
New York Giants head coach Tom Coughlin thinks of Smith as an improved game manager.
“I think he’s managing the game much better,” Coughlin said Wednesday on a conference call with the Bay Area media. “He’s more confident. I think he realizes and believes in this team. He’s played well under his new tutelage. He’s benefited from this style. He’s playing well. He’s leading his team.”
And from a distance, Coughlin’s assessment seems accurate. Smith hasn’t been asked to put the entire team on his back. Instead, Smith’s job as quarterback is to make the short, smart throws and most importantly, eliminte the turnovers. So far he has done that and the team’s running game has kept the offense going in the right direction.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh feels that despite the low numbers from the low risk passes, Smith has elevated his play to “elite” status. And it all started when Harbaugh started assessing Smith when the coach was hired in January.
“I was looking in through the keyhole, so to speak,” Harbaugh said of his first impression of Smith. “I respected him as a player. I think people that know football and understand the game appreciate Alex Smith as a very talented quarterback.
“He’s every bit the elite quarterback as there is playing in the game right now. Appreciate all the talent that he has and what he brings to our team.”
It could be bias from Harbaugh, but naming a quarterback “elite” is a very strong statement to make. In the league when huge statistics make a quarterback elite, calling a quarterback with smaller numbers doesn’t seem to be a strong fit.
But Harbaugh doesn’t want to look at numbers. He’s looking at everything else surrounding Smith.
“Again, it’s a whole body of work,” Harbaugh said. “There’s evidence… really however you want to pick his performance apart. He’s playing at a very high level.”
It may be because the 49ers are 7-1. With the way Smith is playing and the team’s current record, it’s easy to give Smith credit for being an elite quarterback — a quarterback that wins. Obviously there are many other elements that factor into the 49ers’ hot start.
But if you’re looking through Harbaugh’s eyes, it’s no longer looking through a keyhole. He’s entered the door and seen what kind of quarterback Smith has become. And with all the requirements Harbaugh has asked of Smith, the quarterback has delivered.
To Harbaugh, successfully executing in the offense makes a quarterback elite. And so far, Smith has done just that. And he’s winning — which is all that matters to the 49ers right now.