The man has taken a beating, physically and mentally. Since the beginning of last season, 49ers quarterback Alex Smith has been sacked 54 times, the most in the NFL. Since the beginning of his career -- he was the first player picked in the 2005 draft -- he's been booed, criticized and briefly set free.

"But he's got a lot of fight in him," said Alex Boone, who as right guard has the responsibility of protecting Smith. "I love that about him."

Smith went from outcast to semi-hero a year ago, outplaying the Saints' Drew Brees in an NFC divisional playoff game before losing to Eli Manning and the Giants in overtime in the NFC Championship Game.

Along the way, he suffered a concussion against the Cowboys and a hit in his sternum against the Redskins that was so severe that Smith's chinstrap ended up above his nose.

"He's as tough as a $2 steak," insisted 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, whose belief, advice and offensive system have helped the quarterback.

Smith, who faces the Jets Sunday, also is efficient. Until his 34th throw of the game was picked off last week at Minnesota, he had thrown 249 passes without an interception, a record for a franchise that has utilized Joe Montana and Steve Young at quarterback.

The knock on Smith is that he's a game manager, keeping the situation under control rather than daring to force the issue. And it's true that he's completed only seven passes longer than 20 yards and none longer than 29 this season, even with the addition of receivers Randy Moss and former Giant Mario Manningham.

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"There is some give-and-take with not just forcing balls and getting rid of a ball," Smith said of his sacks, picks and style. "A sack's not the end of the world."

Nor is throwing short or handing off to Frank Gore, who in this era of passing is the main reason the 49ers rely on the run.

Including the postseason, San Francisco has won 16 of its last 21. And Harbaugh, a short-on-words, big-on-gruffness former NFL quarterback, said Smith is "operating in the A category."

Reviewing the 24-13 loss to the underdog Vikings last Sunday, Smith said, "Looking back, could we have taken more shots? For sure. But in hindsight, it's so easy to say. When you're in the heat of the game, you're just trying to score, just trying to move the chains and do whatever it takes."

Speaking from Youngstown, Ohio, where the Niners spent the week between Minneapolis and New Jersey, Smith said he doesn't know what to expect against a Jets defense missing their great cover man, Darrelle Revis, out with a torn ACL.

"There's the unknown right there," Smith said.

Jets coach Rex Ryan, on a conference call with the San Francisco media, said the 49ers could go deep if needed.

"You've got Ted Ginn," Ryan said, although the wide receiver has not played this season because of a bad ankle. "You've got Manningham. You've got Randy Moss, oh, by the way, [Michael] Campbell, and the most explosive tight end in football [Vernon Davis]. Yeah, you can throw the ball down the field."

Smith prefers to throw it to the open man. He had only five interceptions in 2011, first in the league, half the number he threw in 2010 before Harbaugh arrived.

"It takes everybody, coaches included," Smith said about the 49ers' success. "The game plan, the preparation that goes through the week, because I really think that's where a lot of winning and losing takes place. This truly is the ultimate team sport."

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Which is very dependent on one man, the quarterback.