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Does Alex Smith offer hope for Tarvaris Jackson?

By Brady Henderson

For years, Alex Smith was considered a bust, a former No. 1 overall pick who had been mediocre at best in six seasons as the 49ers’ quarterback. This season, he’s the NFL’s ninth-rated passer and one win away from a Super Bowl appearance.

Smith’s improvement has generated questions — and an interesting debate on “Brock and Salk” on Wednesday — about whether or not Seahawks quarterback Tarvaris Jackson can make similar strides. After all, they are of similar age — Jackson is 28, a year older than Smith — and their teams have a similar offensive philosophy, both leaning more on its running game than its quarterback.

Furthermore, Jackson’s career numbers are similar to what Smith had posted before this season. Here’s a look at each quarterback’s stats through his first six seasons (Smith missed the entire 2008 season due to injury):

Smith, 2005-2010: 864-1,514 (57.1 percent), 51 TDs, 53 INTs in 54 games.
Jackson, 2006-2011: 625-1,053 (59.4 percent), 38 TDs, 35 INTs in 51 games.

Tarvaris Jackson played most of the season with a pectoral injury he sustained in Week 5. (AP)

Of course, only time will tell whether or not Jackson experiences improvement similar to that of Smith. In the meantime, I’ve listed some thoughts that give reasons to believe that he can as well as some that suggest he won’t.

A healthy pectoral: Jackson admirably played most of the season despite a torn pectoral muscle on his right side. That would be the pec that is connected to the right arm that he uses to throw the football. It’s hard to imagine that the injury didn’t at least slightly affect Jackson’s play, whether it forced him to alter his throwing motion, made him reluctant to step into throws or simply caused him a great deal of pain. The team is hopeful that the injury won’t require surgery, ensuring Jackson’s availability for offseason workouts. Either way, the injury doesn’t figure to be an issue next season.

Yeah, but … Jackson suffered the injury in Week 5, and he wasn’t playing overwhelmingly well before that. In four games, Jackson completed 62.2 percent of his passes with five touchdowns and four interceptions while averaging 211.5 yards passing per game. Jackson also lost two fumbles in that span. Not bad, but not great. In fairness, he threw for a career-high 319 yards in Week 4. Also, Pete Carroll said at one point that the injury wasn’t limiting Jackson’s throwing ability.

A normal offseason: A lockout-shortened offseason didn’t do Jackson any favors. He signed with the Seahawks when the lockout ended and was immediately named the team’s starting quarterback after spending most of the previous three seasons as a backup. A full offseason to prepare himself as the starting quarterback (assuming Seattle doesn’t sign one in free agency) should help.

Yeah, but … Smith learned a new offense (Greg Roman is his seventh coordinator in as many seasons) in the same lockout-shortened offseason. Jackson, meanwhile, has run the same offense since he entered the league in 2006. As former NFL quarterback Rich Gannon said last week, “if anyone should have known the offense it’s Tarvaris Jackson.” If Smith can thrive in a new offense after a lockout-shortened offseason, why didn’t Jackson do so in a familiar offense under the same circumstances?

A full compliment of receivers: The addition of Sidney Rice gave the Seahawks the top free-agent wide receiver to play opposite Mike Williams, the team’s leading receiver in 2010. Both ended the season on injured reserve. Williams missed four games while Rice missed seven. Furthermore, the offensive line’s issues with pass protection increased tight end Zach Miller’s blocking duties, limiting the former Pro Bowler’s impact as a receiver. Seahawks tight ends didn’t have a single touchdown catch. A healthier and more experienced offensive line should give Miller and the team’s other tight ends more opportunities as receivers next season.

Yeah, but … As far as the wide receivers are concerned, this is another excuse that Smith and the 49ers could have used but didn’t. Starter Josh Morgan was lost for the season in Week 5 with a broken leg. Braylon Edwards, who signed as a free agent after catching 53 passes for 904 yards and seven touchdowns in 2010, played in only nine games due to a knee injury and was released before the playoffs.

Where do you stand? Your thoughts are welcomed in the comment section below.

Follow Brady Henderson on Twitter @BradyHenderson