First-half storyline: There was plenty of skepticism when the 49ers were unable to sign veteran Matt Hasselbeck, whom the organization pursued as a free agent, and Jim Harbaugh began the season with Alex Smith as the starting quarterback. But everything has worked out just fine. The 49ers are not winning in spite of Smith. They are winning in large part because of Smith.
He has been ultra-efficient with 10 touchdown passes and two interceptions in the first half of the season. The 49ers rank 30th in the league in passing yards, but Smith is sixth in the NFL with a 97.3 passer rating. The 49ers averaged 19.1 points per game in 2010. In the first half of this season, the 49ers averaged 25.8 points. Smith has done everything asked of him while the running game has taken off behind a constantly improving offensive line and powerhouse running back Frank Gore.MVP: Gore. He entered the regular season happy with a new contract extension, but things got off to a rough start. After three games, Gore averaged just 2.5 yards an attempt and many questioned whether he was finished as an elite running back. Five games later, Gore has left little doubt that he remains one of the best in the business. It does not seem to matter that opposing defenses have been geared to stop him. Gore became the first player in 49ers history to rush for more than 100 yards in five consecutive games. And he enters the second half of the season with 782 rushing yards (4.9 average) and five touchdowns.Biggest surprise: Smith. He demonstrated incremental improvements when he was healthy through his first six NFL seasons. But under the new coaching staff, Smith's game has taken off. He has thrown fewer interceptions than any other starting quarterback in the league this season. And he is a huge reason the 49ers are a plus-12 in the takeawaygiveaway column.Biggest disappointment: The 49ers offensive line did not get off to a good start on the season, and at halftime of their Week 3 game at Cincinnati, a change was made. Right guard Chilo Rachal, a second-round pick in the 2008 draft, was benched in favor of veteran Adam Snyder. The move has worked out for the 49ers, who have not lost since the change was made.Best play: It was Smith's least-consistent game of the season, but when the 49ers needed him to be perfect, he was. Facing a fourth-and-goal from the 6-yard line against the Detroit Lions, Smith put a quick slant on the money to tight end Delanie Walker, who lined up as a wide receiver on the right side. Walker caught the pass at the 2-yard line and kept his knee off the ground while Lions defensive back Louis Delmas tried to bring him down short of the end zone. The touchdown provided the 49ers with the go-ahead points in their eventual 25-19 victory over the previously unbeaten Lions at Ford Field.Worst play: In the closing minutes of the 49ers' 48-3 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, receiver Josh Morgan caught a 19-yard pass from rookie quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Morgan's left leg got caught underneath on the tackle, and he sustained a broken ankle. He underwent season-ending surgery the next day. Morgan was emerging as a down-field threat in the passing game while also impressing coaches with his contributions as a blocker.Key to the second half: The focus of the offense will always be Gore and the run game. But the 49ers must also find a way to get big-chunk plays in the passing game from Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree and Braylon Edwards. The 49ers do not have to open up the offense and change their philosophy in the second half of the season. But they need to take advantage of their big-play chances while also being more consistent on third downs. The 49ers rank 26th in the league, converting just 31.1 percent their third-down chances.