SANTA CLARA, Calif. — First, Jim Harbaugh campaigned to bring Alex Smith back for another season in San Francisco. Now, he’s pushing for his quarterback to make the Pro Bowl.
The 49ers coach is praising his comeback QB as one of the top three in the NFC along with Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees of New Orleans – and Harbaugh said Tuesday he considers the 2005 No. 1 overall draft pick to be the team’s long-term answer behind center.
And everybody knows Harbaugh has plenty of pull when it comes to the roster considering he has pulled off such a remarkable resurgence for this franchise in a matter of months.
While Harbaugh isn’t about to start getting into statement games or whether his Niners now have elite NFL status, Monday night’s commanding 20-3 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers showed just how many stars San Francisco has on both sides of the ball.
Smith remained poised in prime time only three games after he got sacked nine times in a flop at Baltimore on Thanksgiving night. He was unfazed when Candlestick Park went dark not once but twice to interrupt Monday’s game on the big stage, delaying kickoff and then stopping play early in the second quarter.
“No question, lights out, no pun intended,” Smith said of the overall performance.
Smith hardly has the gaudy passing numbers or touchdowns of some of his fellow quarterbacks – his 2,752 yards passing rank ninth in the NFC, while his 16 touchdowns are good for eighth and he also has an NFL-high 39 sacks. Yet Harbaugh points to many other key statistics that go unnoticed but have helped NFC West-champion San Francisco (11-3) return to the playoffs for the first time in nine years. Most notably, Smith takes care of the football.
The 27-year-old Smith, who rejoined the 49ers this summer as a free agent on a $4.9 million, one-year deal, owns a 61.4 completion percentage that’s sixth in the NFC and has the fewest interceptions with five.
“That’s the low-hanging fruit,” Harbaugh said. “Just go straight to the yardage line or the touchdown-passes line. I think that people that understand football understand that there’s a lot more that goes into the job of a quarterback than those statistics.”
Smith avoided being sacked Monday night after being taken down 18 times in the previous three games.
“He’s done a marvelous job of taking care of the football and he’s playing championship football,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said Tuesday. “I really think he’s doing great and if he can get in the Pro Bowl, great. There’s a lot of guys out there that have thrown for a million yards that everybody gets enamored with. But, to me, it’s all about doing things that help you win and play great football. And Alex is doing just that.”
Four-time Pro Bowl linebacker Patrick Willis, a star defender making his case for another Pro Bowl nod, hopes to return for Saturday’s game at Seattle after missing the last two games with an injured right hamstring.
Willis said he has made significant progress in his recovery.
Lately, he has been impressed just watching his defensive teammates while he returns to full strength.
“It was impressive. I tell our defensive guys all the time that I’m their biggest fan out there,” Willis said.
Harbaugh could make a case for a handful of his defenders going to the Pro Bowl in Honolulu on Jan. 29. He complimented menacing defensive tackle Justin Smith as the team “MVP.”