Alex Smith key to 49ers’ postseason hopes

If he continues to play like he did last week, Alex Smith could

save the season for the San Francisco 49ers and also save his job

with the team.

But to keep those possibilities alive, Smith will have to do it

this week as a visitor in his hometown against one of his most

influential mentors and with the NFL’s No. 1 defense on the other

side of the ball.

Smith and the 49ers face another must-win situation when they

play Thursday night in San Diego, where Smith grew up cheering for

the Chargers and where his former offensive coordinator is now the

head coach.

Smith was up to the challenge in a similar position last Sunday,

returning from a five-game layoff to produce one of the finest

performances of his career. Smith’s big game sparked the 49ers

(5-8) to a 40-21 victory over Seattle, lifting San Francisco to

within a game of first place in the NFC West.

Some thought Smith might never throw another pass for the 49ers

after he was injured Oct. 24 in Carolina and Troy Smith

subsequently took over as the team’s starting quarterback.

Alex Smith now looks like the best option to lead the 49ers

through a final stretch that will define their season and likely

decide the fate of Smith and coach Mike Singletary.

”As long as he plays the way he played last week, he’s going to

give us a chance to win every game,” 49ers offensive coordinator

Mike Johnson said Tuesday. ”He was extremely disciplined, he was

calm, focused, and he made great decisions with the ball. He showed

that he has the potential to be a good quarterback, and that’s

hopefully something we can get from him this week and every week

going forward.”

The 49ers have been waiting for Smith to develop into a good

starting quarterback since they took him with the No. 1 overall

selection of the 2005 NFL draft.

It has been a rocky road for Smith ever since, one filled with

turmoil and injuries and six different offensive coordinators in

his six years with the team.

The coordinator who had the most impact on Smith was Norv

Turner, now head coach of the Chargers (7-6).

Turner was San Francisco’s offensive coordinator in 2006, when

Smith became the first quarterback in 49ers history to play every

offensive snap in a season and ended the year looking like one of

the NFL’s up-and-comers at the position.

Then Turner left for San Diego and things have never quite been

the same for Smith. Smith’s struggles continued into this season,

when he threw nine interceptions in San Francisco’s first five

games and was 1-6 as the team’s starter before getting injured.

Given another shot last week, Smith looked like a different

quarterback. He completed 17 of 27 passes for 255 yards and

compiled a 130.9 passer rating, the best for a game in his career.

He also matched his career high with three touchdown passes.

Turner said it’s the kind of thing Smith always has been able to

do but circumstances in San Francisco have prevented him from doing

it consistently.

”Obviously there’s been a lot of change for Alex, so it’s not

even fair I think to evaluate him on a game-to-game performance,”

Turner said. ”But when you look at the physical skills, and

certainly the plays he made the other day, the way he operated, he

continues to me to show that he’s capable.”

A free agent at the end of this season, it’s unlikely Smith will

return to the 49ers unless there’s a big turnaround from both him

and the team over these final three games.

Smith said he’s not worrying about that.

”I’m not thinking about any of that (future) stuff, to be

honest with you. We’re a game back in the division and we’re

playing one of the best football teams in the NFL,” Smith said.

”Our backs are up against the wall and it’s a short week, short

turnaround. So I’m excited, and I think everyone is.”