01/13/2012 09:47 am ET Updated Mar 14, 2012

Alex Smith: Playoff-Caliber QB?

Alex Smith seems to have finally won over his legions of doubters among 49ers fans. But in national circles, he's still viewed with skeptical eyes, as in, Is Alex Smith really a playoff-caliber quarterback?

Smith has a grand opportunity to quiet the naysayers on Saturday, as he leads San Francisco into its NFC divisional playoff game against the visiting Saints. In fact, with the possible exception of Tim Tebow, no player's reputation stands to benefit more from a strong performance in the weekend's games.

But if Smith has a poor showing in a loss to New Orleans, and especially if he commits the costly turnover he avoided throughout his breakout season, the critics are sure to circle like sharks.
Smith isn't capable of being a true winner. The 49ers need more than a game manager at quarterback. Smith only won this year because of his team's dominant defense. It was only a matter of time before Bad Alex resurfaced.

Thus the question -- Has Alex Smith established himself as the quarterback San Francisco can hitch its wagon to or is the jury still out?

From this corner, Smith has earned the right to be the guy. He has flourished under first-year coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman, finally eliminating the inconsistent performances and momentum-killing mistakes of years past. His five comeback wins, league-low interception percentage and career-best passer rating of 90.7 all speak to his development into a capable performer.

A shaky showing in his playoff debut wouldn't undermine all the positives Smith has displayed in his seventh year. But it certainly would highlight what he needs to do to get to the next level, that of a seasoned playoff winner.

Regardless of how he fares against the Saints, Smith is never going to be seen as more than a solid quarterback so long as he plays in such a risk-averse scheme.

San Francisco has found a winning formula that rarely relies on Smith to make dynamic plays. The team went 13-3 this season without Smith enjoying a single 300-yard game. Only the Broncos attempted fewer passes than the 49ers.

As much as Harbaugh's system has benefited Smith, it has also hampered our ability to truly assess his worth. Is Smith merely a strong fit as the signal-caller in a ball-control offense? Or would he continue to blossom in a more wide-open attack?

Those are the pertinent questions. And unfortunately for Smith, if the 49ers continue to win in the fashion that they have this season, those questions will persist.