SANTA CLARA This would have been highly improbable a year ago, or two years ago, and certainly in the weeks and months following his selection as the NFL's No. 1 draft choice in 2005.
But Alex Smith is escaping the microscope. He is finally, improbably, becoming a quality starter and potential star, a quarterback whose weekly performances are dissected instead of eviscerated.
What more will it take to overcome that tortured legacy? A victory in today's home opener against the Detroit Lions would help. Wins at Minnesota and New York (Jets) in the ensuing weeks would be beneficial. A trip to the Super Bowl would be huge.
True, Smith will never be mistaken for Joe Montana or Steve Young, and he would have to morph into some combination of Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Robert Griffin III to advance the argument that the 49ers were shrewder and smarter to draft him instead of Aaron Rodgers.
The numbers are what they are. But so is the calendar.
Young didn't become a star until his 30s. At 28, Smith has plenty of time to re-create a favorable 49ers identity and, in the process, endear himself to many of the same people who wanted to chase him out of town including former coaches.
In his first six seasons, he played for six offensive coordinators and two defensive-minded head coaches. If the sideline blisterings he received from Mike Singletary account for his most embarrassing moments just ahead of his demotions to a status below J.T. O'Sullivan, Troy Smith and Shaun Hill the most painful episodes were when Mike Nolan downplayed his shoulder injury and, in essence, questioned his toughness.
In NFL locker rooms, that's usually a lethal blow.
Yet in the 49ers locker room, Smith not only endured, he emerged as a resident stud.
"He is not the person who is going to get led off the cliff with the rest of the lemmings," offensive coordinator Greg Roman said last week. "He understands the purpose of his job is to distribute the ball, execute the offense and help the team win. He's got an innate feel for risk management on the fly. But when I say that I mean he knows when to be aggressive, when to let it rip, and when to make a certain throw."
Smith, who has thrown 185 passes without an interception, is coming off a season in which he led the 49ers to a 13-3 record and within a victory of the Super Bowl. There is potential to improve. Known to have thrown a few wobblers, the former Utah standout has been described by coach Jim Harbaugh as a "game manager." But he also threw with greater precision during the postseason, and this past offseason he joined a list of NFL quarterbacks who work on their mechanics with former Major League Baseball pitching coach Tom House.
"Throwing the football is very much a team thing," Smith said. "A lot to do with protection up front, stepping into clean pockets, throwing. A lot to do with the guys outside, running good routes, making strong catches. It's always a work in progress. You're always trying to get better, and No. 1, making good decisions, making the right decisions."
That's all part of it. Smith could complain for hours legitimately about what it was like laboring behind shaky offensive lines and working with receivers who couldn't get open or hang onto passes. But he won't. He knows what it feels like to be tossed under a bus.
These days he also knows what's it like to be in command of a winning football team, to have a terrific offensive line and talented corps of wide receivers, and to play for a coach who has high expectations but also has his back.
Again, Smith is only 28. He's healthy. He doesn't have to be Montana or Young. He has time to be a very successful, efficient, accomplished Alex Smith.
"When I look into his eyes, I see determination," tight end Vernon Davis said. "He wants it bad."