Alex Smith's quarterback rating has increased in all but one of his seven seasons playing in the National Football League. The only year it decreased, 2007, the former No. 1 overall pick suffered a major shoulder injury which threatened to derail his career altogether.
But ever since that setback, which was followed by two season-ending surgeries and two head coaching changes, Smith has found ways to improve each year he's been in the pros. Now, under his third head coach who stresses all the key fundamentals of his position, Smith's enjoying the best year of his career.
Smith also has his team one win away from clinching the NFC West and San Francisco's first playoff berth since 2002.
"This is new territory for a lot of us here, me included," Smith said on Wednesday, "but it's exciting."
The athletic quarterback, who's shown ability to make plays with his arm and his legs, has been at the center of his team's success. Leadership, toughness and strong decision-making have all been the hallmarks of Smith's breakout season.
The 49ers quarterback, who has a 75.3 career quarterback rating, has seen his production steadily improve under Harbaugh's watch with their like-minded approach. Passion for the game and a close eye on details have Smith on pace to post career-best numbers across his stat line.
And, he has five games to do it.
Smith's current 91.2 quarterback rating stands as the league's eighth-best. And also this season, Smith has thrown for 2,116 yards while posting 7.10 yards per attempt, the highest average of his career.
With a new focus on ball security, Smith has trusted his teammates on both sides of the ball to make plays for him. He doesn't force throws, certainly not when he trusts his top-ranked defense to get the ball back to the offense.
Moreover, Smith's been more of a runner this season. He needs 14 rushing yards to surpass the 147 yards he totaled in 2006, the year he became the first quarterback in team history to take every snap from center for an entire season.
"In the past I don't think it was something I emphasized enough or paid enough attention to," Smith admitted. "It's not that I'm forcing it, but now I'm letting those things come to me and taking them when they're there."
Smith was sacked a season-high nine times last week in a loss to Baltimore, but could have been taken down a few more times if not for his improvisational running from the pocket.
Teammates appreciate Smith's play-making ability and like his chances of moving the chains if he decides to tuck the ball and run.
"He's protecting the ball really well," center Jonathan Goodwin noted. "I don't think he has that many interceptions and at the same time, getting sacked, I don't think he's put the ball on the ground. I think Alex has done a great job this year. The No. 1 thing for a quarterback is to protect the ball."
In fact, the 49ers are 6-0 when Smith has avoided throwing an interception this season.
The focus on running for first downs has helped in that category. Instead of throwing into tight coverage on third downs, Smith's been adept at looking for running lanes when they appear.
"There's been more of an emphasis of still using my legs as one of my strengths when plays break down or when I see lanes," Smith detailed. "I'm using them to potentially pick up a first down or to extend plays."
Perhaps Sunday's opponent, the St. Louis Rams, serve as the best reminder of Smith's resurgence in 2011.
The last time the teams played, Smith came off the bench to try and save the 49ers season by keeping them in the playoff hunt. This time, the 49ers need a win from Smith to put them in the playoffs.
Indeed, what a remarkable turnaround.
"It's fun playing for a playoff berth and our first division championship since 2002," Smith said. "It's exciting to be playing in these types of games in November and now down into December."
All-time, Smith is 4-2 against the Rams with an 86.8 quarterback rating, his highest against any NFC West opponent. Further evidence of Smith's improved on-field demeanor, his four, fourth-quarter comebacks this season match the four comebacks he posted in his previous six seasons.
If the 49ers can beat St. Louis in any fashion, it might not count towards Smith's comeback numbers, but it'll further seal his case as one of the league's best stories of the year.