Eagles running back LeSean McCoy, left, 49ers quarterback Alex Smith (11)… (Photos by Getty Images,…)
Talk about a quarterback sneak.
San Francisco's Alex Smith has become a pretty reliable quarterback, right under our noses. The former No. 1 pick, who many times looked to be on his way out the door, has done a very respectable job for the 49ers, who at 6-1 have the NFL's second-best record to the 7-0 Green Bay Packers.
With the midway point of the season approaching, Smith is one of several players around the league who have stepped up in a big way, either emerging from the shadows or — in the case of Smith — redefining how people think of them.
Smith's hasn't been a complete U-turn. He isn't Tom Brady, Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers, and there's a good chance he'll never be the focal point of the offense. But the 49ers, with their sixth-ranked running game and 10th-ranked defense, have put him in position to succeed.
Smith has nine touchdowns and two interceptions. At this point last season, he had nine interceptions to go with his nine touchdowns. Is it because he's more accustomed to the offense? No, because he's been in a different offensive system — or at least had a different coordinator — in each of his seven seasons. It's that Coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman have kept Smith out of situations where he has to make all sorts of decisions, or squeeze in tight throws, and in so doing have limited his mistakes.
He has completed 63.2% of his passes, tying him with Philadelphia's Michael Vick for ninth in the league, and has made some clutch throws under pressure, as he did to win at Detroit.
There's no magic to it, and Smith is quick to point out that there's not much to the theory that Harbaugh, as a former NFL quarterback, has made his job significantly easier.
"The only thing I was told is, 'You'll be given an opportunity to compete,' " Smith said. "It wasn't like there were any handouts or anything like that, because that's not the way Coach Harbaugh works.
"In a lot of ways, he's harder on the quarterback position because he knows it so well. It might be a misconception that it's this easy thing. From day one, all I've wanted is an opportunity to compete."
Four other surprising impact players on offense:
Wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey, Oakland — The seventh overall pick in the 2009 draft, Heyward-Bey was an undeniable bust in his first two seasons. But so far this year, he has been surprisingly reliable. His numbers aren't overwhelming — 27 catches for 434 yards with a touchdown — but he's already caught one more ball than his 2010 total, and his per-catch average is up two yards to 16.1.
As a rookie, he caught an absurdly low 23% of passes thrown his way. That number climbed to 40% last season, and now is up to 55%.
"He works really hard," new Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer said of Heyward-Bey. "He's obviously fast. He can be a complete receiver. He just needs to continue to work, and his confidence needs to continue to grow. The only way your confidence grows is by doing things on game day and making plays, and he'll do that for us."
Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, Buffalo — It's not that Fitzpatrick was a bad player before this season, but he was always viewed — at least from the outside — as a space-holder, someone holding the job until the Bills got serious about addressing their need for a quarterback. Heading into the draft last spring, the franchise made no secret of its interest in Auburn's Cam Newton. There were opportunities to take a quarterback later in the draft, and the Bills didn't do it.
Fitzpatrick, a seventh-round pick from Harvard in 2005, has completed 67.7% of his passes this season (his best year to this point was 59.4%), and has helped spark a revival of the 5-2 Bills.
Buffalo rewarded him last week with a six-year, $59-million contract, one that lifted the uncertainty of his being in the final season of his three-year deal. He became the first starting quarterback since Doug Flutie in 1999 to receive a contract extension from Buffalo.
Wide receiver Victor Cruz, New York Giants — Undrafted from Massachusetts in 2010, Cruz was a sensation in the exhibition season — there are a lot of those who fail to make a splash when games actually count — then went without a catch in three appearances as a rookie. A hamstring injury ended his season.
Promoted from No. 4 receiver this season because of injuries to teammates, Cruz got off to a slow start. He didn't have a catch in the opener against Washington, then made a pair in Week 2 against St. Louis. In the last five games, he has 26 for 480 yards with five touchdowns.
Against Miami on Sunday, he had seven catches for 99 yards, including a 25-yard touchdown with 5:58 to play in a 20-17 victory by the Giants.
Running back LeSean McCoy, Philadelphia — The Dallas Cowboys entered Sunday night's game against Philadelphia with the league's No. 1-ranked rush defense. McCoy shredded that, running for 185 yards in 30 carries, and taking full advantage of the Cowboys' strategy of keeping their safeties back so they wouldn't get burned by the deep ball.
Typically, the Eagles don't run a lot in Andy Reid's offense, so for McCoy to carry the ball 58 times in the last two games is a testament to how good he is. For so many years, Brian Westbrook was the prototypical back for a West Coast offense, a guy with great hands who was very good in the open field. McCoy could wind up being even better.
"That's a hell of a back they've got there," Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said. "The guy is coming out of every angle there is known to man. He's a special player."