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Smith maximizing new opportunity

The most encouraging thing about Alex Smith -- now that he's the San Francisco 49ers' starting quarterback again -- is his attitude. He doesn't carry himself like a man whose career was on life support when the offseason began. He doesn't act like a beleaguered first-round pick who feels compelled to make something happen on every play. Smith simply behaves like he's back where he belongs. And that is the kind of confidence the 49ers sorely need at this point.

Smith made his first NFL start in nearly two years when the 49ers met the Indianapolis Colts this past Sunday. San Francisco ultimately suffered an 18-14 loss in that contest, but the good news was that Smith didn't make his promotion from second string seem like a ridiculous mistake. He made a few big-time throws and played with an undeniable self-assuredness. Even his lone interception -- which resulted from a high pass that skimmed off the fingers of rookie wide receiver Michael Crabtree -- wasn't the sort of error that drives coaches batty.

Smith basically did the same things he'd done while playing in relief of benched starter Shaun Hill in a 24-21 loss to Houston a week earlier. Smith nearly led a comeback from a 21-point deficit in that defeat, as he threw three touchdown passes in the second half.

"The thing about Alex right now is that the game isn't too fast for him," said 49ers coach Mike Singletary. "It's slowed down. His mechanics are better. He has a better control of the offense. He just needs to continue to get the things that he needs from [offensive coordinator] Jimmy Raye and [quarterbacks coach] Mike Johnson so he can keep getting better. And he will get better."

Singletary believes in Smith for one key reason: He's seen what his quarterback has fought through in order to earn an opportunity to resurrect his career. Smith has gone from being the first overall pick in the 2005 draft to being an injured player in a public feud with his former head coach (Mike Nolan) to being a second-string scrub whom many fans already had declared a colossal bust. Along the way, he underwent two operations on a shoulder mangled during the 2007 season and learned that his best friend committed suicide last August. It would've been easy for Smith to fade away after all that.

Instead, Smith found both a resolve and peace of mind. After trying to perfect every play he ran earlier in his career, he's learned the importance of playing within himself. Smith even called a couple of plays during that loss to the Colts, after the headset in his helmet malfunctioned and prevented him from communicating with Raye in the first half.

"When things slow down, you get a greater understanding of what you're trying to do out there," said Smith, who has completed 63 percent of his passes this season with four touchdowns and two interceptions.

Smith's current value to the 49ers goes beyond proving that he's still worth the investment they made him. His other notable achievement over the last two weeks is making the players around him better. Remember, it was Smith who stuck around during his bye week to throw passes to Crabtree after the receiver signed a contract following a lengthy holdout. Smith also is the same player who's helped tight end Vernon Davis -- who's caught four touchdown passes in the last two games -- to play more like the difference-maker he was predicted to be as a first-round pick.

These are the signs that should give the 49ers hope when they start assessing whether Smith can lead them into the postseason. The truth is that this team is better than its 3-4 record suggests, and most people who've watched them should know this. One of their losses came on a last-second touchdown pass in Minnesota, and they also played the Colts tough in Indianapolis. In fact, the 49ers have been outplayed in only one game: a 45-10 bashing by the Atlanta Falcons on Oct. 11.

So this is the time when the 49ers have to decide if they're going to be the team they think they can become. That also means Smith has to perform like the quarterback he's always believed he could be. He has proved to be capable of leading the team in hurry-up situations, but he also knows that isn't good enough in an offense that has relied heavily on its running game to date.

"If you're going to be successful in the NFL, you can't be one-dimensional," Smith said. "You have to have balance. We need to be able to run the ball and be physical and we also need to make plays through the air."

One thing the 49ers don't have to worry about with Smith is whether he grasps the magnitude of his latest opportunity. He realizes that the team could've dumped him during the offseason instead of restructuring the final two years of his contract. He also understands why he couldn't beat out Hill for the starting job coming out of training camp. Hill had led the 49ers to seven wins in his 10 starts before this season. That fact alone gave him a clear edge in that race.

But now this is Smith's chance to prove that the buzz surrounding him in the offseason wasn't misplaced hype. He's been a different man over the last year, one who's been hardened by pain that has been physical, mental and emotional. Most players don't make it back from experiences that traumatic. So far, Smith has shown that better days may still lie ahead for him.

Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.