Alex Smith: Team leader or pretender?

So, the football gods finally blessed the 49ers with a playoff berth. First time since 2002.

And it has come on the heels of a big, bad turnaround season to boot.

But despite winning the NFC West with little-to-no contest, the road to the playoffs has not been pretty. And no member of the 49ers organization has brought out more opinions—both positive and negative—than quarterback Alex Smith.

The former first-round draft pick has just had his best season in six NFL campaigns. And even with his team’s turnaround season, you don’t hear Smith mentioned with MVP contenders like Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers, or even an out-for-the-season Peyton Manning.

So is Smith having a breakout year worthy of a top-ranked quarterback? Or is he just a now-better player on a now-better team?

There are those that follow coach Harbaugh’s lead in thinking that Smith has elevated himself to a spot of leadership. Those who believe that Smith’s boost of confidence under a new coach has brought him into the league of extraordinary quarterbacks.

The Merc’s Tim Kawakami views Smith as if he were the ultimate comeback kid, amicably calling him the “college-underdog-turned-No. 1-pick-turned-browbeaten-QB-turned-lost-soul-turned-comeback-story-of-the-year.”

Say that five times fast.

Kawakami stands by Smith as being the victim of poor past coaching, singling out Mikes Nolan and Singletary as the main culprits keeping the QB down. In Kawakami’s eyes, Smith has overcome odds to be a team leader.

Not everyone shares Kawakami’s enthusiasm. Or supportive attitude.

A whole other band of fans and critics that think Smith is a “complimentary player.” NFL blogger Greg Cosell goes so far as to call Smith a “pretender,” and not the powerhouse team leader that Harbaugh thinks he is. Cosell points out that Smith has the fewest passes by a QB due to being the weakest link, and that it’s the Frank Gore-led run game and league-topping defense that has led Niners to the playoffs.

Cosell is from that second camp. The camp that doesn’t think that Smith has the leadership skills that other quarterbacks possess.

So time will tell: When it comes down to crunch time this playoff season, will the Niners be able to lean on Smith as their leader?

Additional source:

Alex Smith became a 49ers leader–and better QB–when he stopped trying to please everybody