SAM FARMER / ON THE NFL

Alex Smith, the Bay Area's most improbable hero

First, with no free-agency period (until one ultimately came in late July), the 49ers couldn't sign another veteran quarterback, even if they wanted to, and no other teams could make a play for Smith.

More important, Smith was among the few 49ers who had Harbaugh's playbook — he got a copy during the brief lifting of the lockout — so he was able to conduct "Camp Alex" at San Jose State, run through the plays with his teammates, and show his ability to lead. He paid for players to come to the camp, and even loaned them his car when necessary. The team bonded.

That confidence in Smith grew throughout last season, as the team went from 6-10 in 2010 to 13-3. After the offense ground to a halt in the conference title game against the Giants — when 49ers receivers totaled one catch for four yards — San Francisco invested in its receiving corps, including adding free agents Mario Manningham and Randy Moss.

The 49ers looked at Peyton Manning this off-season, although Harbaugh insists they only were evaluating him and were determined to stick with Smith. Regardless, because of the way Smith played last season, the bar would have been set much higher for Manning in San Francisco than it was replacing Tim Tebow in Denver.

San Francisco almost blew it with Smith. Scot McCloughan, general manager of the 49ers when they drafted Smith, was warned in 2005 by friend and quarterback guru Mike Holmgren to take it slow with Smith, not to rush him onto the field. But the 49ers did.

"I told Scot, 'There will be a learning curve for him. You know it. I know it. But the owner has to know it. The media has to know it. Everybody has to know it,'" Holmgren recalled in an interview with The Times in 2011.

Instead, Smith was the starter by Week 5, and in his debut had four interceptions, was sacked five times and posted an 8.5 passer rating. The 49ers would finish last in the league in passing yards for the first time in club history.

"He was destined to fail," Holmgren said.

For Smith, that seems like three careers ago. He's not Young or Joe Montana, but he's a seasoned leader of a 4-1 team that rolled up a franchise-record 621 yards of offense last Sunday and has beaten its last two opponents — the Jets and Bills — by a combined 79-3.

He's a quarterback who can open the NLDS with a fastball in the dirt and still get a standing ovation.

"He's stuck with it and persevered when a lot of other guys would have quit," York said.

"You can argue about who's the best quarterback in the National Football League. Well, I think Alex Smith is the toughest, and that fits our football team better than anything else."

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