Alex Smith can carry the Niners

Alex Smith's terrific season continued against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday. AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

The San Francisco 49ers' quarterbacking history has its share of truly elite passers, namely Joe Montana and Steve Young; but they also have a rich history of quarterbacks who were just below that level (Frankie Albert, Y.A. Tittle and John Brodie).

Current starter Alex Smith certainly doesn't belong in the former group, but it also seems pretty widely accepted that he is nowhere near the latter. Up until recently, there was even a popular train of thought that San Francisco shouldn't consider him as a possible long-term quarterback solution, this despite the fact that he's still only 27 years old.

Smith's limitations were part of my mindset when I wrote an article in October that stated the 49ers were playoff pretenders.

At that moment, it looked like San Francisco's offense simply wouldn't be explosive enough to vault this team to victories over the high-powered offenses that were due to populate the NFC playoffs, and a lot of that started with Smith. It didn't make you an overly negative football watcher to determine that the guy simply lacked a high ceiling.

But my mind started to change about Smith's future and the 49ers' chances while doing research for last week's New Orleans-San Francisco divisional playoff preview article.

Subsequent research this week has gone a long way toward showing that Smith may be ready to take the potential jump into being included on the list of great San Francisco quarterbacks by the end of his career (assuming, of course, that the 49ers re-sign him) -- and he could lead the Niners past the New York Giants on Sunday.

It all starts by realizing just how close his performance has been to what we might consider strong, near-elite status.