Alex Smith's story is the latest hot topic in the NFL, but it's a tale we should know pretty well by now.
We've seen late-blooming quarterbacks come and go in the league for years, with more recent stars like Rich Gannon and Kurt Warner merely following in the footsteps of the Jim Plunketts and Terry Bradshaws of decades past. The difference with Smith is that he's faced as much scrutiny as anyone at his position. His time in San Francisco had been so painfully disappointing that even he didn't expect to be where he is when last season ended.
Now that Smith is just one game away from helping the 49ers reach the Super Bowl, it's becoming quite trendy to hail his resurrection in his seventh season. But his arrival was something that could've happened long before his 49ers reached this NFC Championship Game matchup with the New York Giants. Smith always had the requisite qualities that any pro quarterback needs: toughness, intelligence and physical ability. Now he's found all the requisite blessings every pro quarterback needs: unwavering support, quality coaching and a group of teammates who could help ease the pressure on him.
That is the secret to Smith's success, a discovery that has eluded other notable top picks like Tim Couch, David Carr and JaMarcus Russell. He managed to hang around long enough to find an environment where he could prosper and a head coach in Jim Harbaugh who could guide him correctly.
"Alex has been through quarterback hell," said Hall of Fame quarterback and current ESPN analyst Steve Young. "Different coordinators. Different languages [in the playbook]. And then being held accountable without support. Now that he has support, he told me he feels like he's doing less. He's doing amazing things because he's in a quarterback-centric system."
When Young talks about what it takes for quarterbacks to develop in the NFL, he's speaking from a deeply personal place. He had to wash out in Tampa Bay in the mid-1980s before former 49ers coach Bill Walsh resuscitated his career in San Francisco. What Young learned then is the same lesson the 27-year-old Smith is discovering today. It takes ample time to play quarterback in the NFL at a high level. The ones who do it faster than most -- whether it's Peyton Manning or Cam Newton -- tend to ruin it for everybody else who should be considered normal.
The cold, hard fact is that there are really only a handful of quarterbacks who truly fall into the "elite" category. Once you get past people like Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees, there's an assortment of talented players trying to figure out the job on a yearly basis. Their chances of success depend heavily on the same things that have helped Smith this season. They need to wind up in systems that fit their skill sets instead of squeezed into offenses conceived by coaches who consider themselves masterminds.
When former Oakland Raiders coach Jon Gruden decided to turn his offense over to Gannon in 1999, Gruden didn't see the unheralded journeyman as a player who was going to rewrite the league's passing records. Instead, he valued Gannon's leadership, savvy and ability to extend plays with his mobility. One reason Warner never got any shot at success in the NFL before blowing up in St. Louis that same season was because he didn't look like anything special. After stints in the Arena Football League and NFL Europe, he suddenly knew how to read defenses quickly and deliver the ball even faster, two traits that made him ideal for the high-powered offense of former Rams coordinator and head coach Mike Martz.
These men aren't any different than Smith. They found opportunities to play the game long enough to gain valuable experience and then they landed in situations with coaches who believed in them. As important as Smith's early meetings with Harbaugh were -- when they'd chat in the 49ers' weight room or play impromptu games of catch prior to the lockout -- so too was the wisdom Smith gained during those six previous seasons of frustration and disappointment.
"Bill Walsh once told me that you have to be open-minded when evaluating a quarterback's game experience," said Houston Texans quarterbacks coach Greg Knapp. "Just getting reps helps a player develop."
There's also a lot to be said for understanding how a quarterback develops. Former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer, another ESPN analyst, once said there is a physical maturation process involved in playing the position but that the emotional maturation of a signal-caller is far more critical and longer in nature. As he said, "quarterback is the most influential position in sports and you can affect a lot of things when you're struggling."
Young also believes that his best years in the NFL came late in his career, when he processed the game at a higher level. As Smith is proving, the most successful quarterbacks are the ones who learn how to see the game before their bodies and spirits are broken.
With that in mind, there should be heightened optimism in San Francisco, both for the 49ers' current playoff hopes and the long-term possibilities of their long-vilified quarterback. Young even laughs at the backhanded compliment that Smith has merely been a game manager this season when, as Young said, "Being a game manager is 60 to 70 percent of the job." Said Young: "I remember thinking [earlier this year], 'Please, Jim, don't start slowly because people will storm the castle. That's how tenuous it was with Alex. But they played safely and they won and that provided good cover. It was genius because the fans went from thinking 'I never want to see Alex play again' to 'this is [happening] because of Alex.' That's a good place to be."
Smith surely isn't reading that much into his success. His focus is on the Giants, the NFC title game and the possibility of helping the 49ers reach the Super Bowl. But there also have to be plenty of struggling quarterbacks out there watching his success and dreaming about the day when they might reach their own potential. Those players have to be thinking one thing in the wake of Smith's rise: Maybe there's hope for the rest of them after all.
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.