If you’re a parent, you hear it often. “It’s not my report card. It’s just my progress report. It doesn’t even count.” Well, it does count. It shows you, the parent how your child is doing at the midpoint of the grading period.
For many 49ers fans, there’s been a thought that Alex Smith has been an underachieving student. How can someone be the number one pick and not be a great quarterback by now? There are many excuses as to why his career hasn’t reached its promise such as injuries, too many offensive coordinators, and not having playmakers to throw the football to for most of his career.
But I think the answer should be this: Alex Smith’s promise (or ceiling) is that of a smart quarterback who is risk averse and will generally take what the opposing defense gives him. He won’t make many mistakes, but also isn’t best suited to win games coming from behind.
He’s probably not going to reach much higher than that. At some point, it’s who he’s always been and probably who he’s always going to be.
So then, the question should be, “Why is he playing his best football now, generally doing the same things he’s always done?”
And while that question may seem to be hard to answer, I don’t think it really is. But first, at his midpoint of the 2012 season, the statistics say he’s a new and improved player, and really, it’s hard to disagree unless you’ve watched him for his entire career.
How are these stats for your smart, yet risk averse QB?
- 69% completion percentage (previous career high = 61%)
- 7.9 yards per attempt (previous career high = 7.1)
- 102.1 QB rating (previous career high = 90.7)
- 70.68 QBR (previous high = 45.77)
I’m not even sure what makes up QBR, but heck, it’s pretty impressive to jump nearly 25 points.
(The Numbers Never Lie guys try to explain some of this.)
When Alex was being coached up by Norv Turner under Mike Nolan in just his second season in the NFL, he made tremendous jumps from his rookie season, which was one of the worst quarterback seasons of all-time. If you dotted the line from Smith’s second season to last year, it would be the type of leap that a good quarterback would make. However, it took Alex four more seasons in-between to get to his most consistently good season in 2011. One of those seasons was a complete wash as he was injured and never took the field in the regular season.
Alex’s best trait might just be his determination. There have been many top picks who never blossomed for whatever reason. They never fulfilled their potential. At some point, either they gave up or that decision was made for them. For Alex Smith, he just stuck around. He stuck around when Mike Nolan was questioning his toughness. He stuck around when Mike Singetary played defense with his offense. And it paid off big time when Jim Harbaugh took a leap of faith with him last year.
The naysayers are many and there are still prognosticators out there who think that Colin Kaepernick is going to take the reigns from him this season. Those guys aren’t watching as much 49ers football as I am. Ever since Harbaugh took over, Alex Smith’s regular season record as the starting quarterback is 19-5. And for those folks who say you’re not telling the entire story because football is the ultimate team game, then you can’t blame his prior 19-31 record as a starter solely on him either.
The 49ers have built a team around Smith’s strengths, rather than forcing him to do things he’s not great at. Great coaches emphasize strengths and hide weaknesses. What are Smith’s weaknesses? He doesn’t pull the trigger on deep throws. He takes too many sacks. He’s too careful with the football. So rather than force him to do things he doesn’t do well, the 49ers have built a team that allows him to throw short, be precise with the football, and win on third down. They have the best running game in football which means that Smith doesn’t have to throw a lot to win football games. And because of their strong defense, Smith doesn’t have to come from behind much, which wasn’t ever a strong point in his game until last year when he had six 4th quarter comebacks, including the playoffs.
With the 49ers sitting at 6-2, they are in first place in the NFC West. They have three huge games ahead of them. In two weeks, maybe the best team in the entire NFL, the Chicago Bears come to San Francisco. They bring a turnover creating defense, not unlike the 49ers defense of last year. Smith will have to control the football and keep it away from the Bears, something he’s generally good at. In week fifteen, the 49ers go to Gillette Stadium to play the high-scoring New England Patriots. More than likely Smith will have to throw the football to keep pace with the Pats. And the week after that, in maybe the biggest game of the second half because it could determine who wins the division, they go into Seattle to play the Seahawks who are currently undefeated at home. Heading into the playoffs, it’ll be the best simulation of a “big game” that Smith will probably have all year.
Those three performances may define Smith’s season, no matter what the statistics say. Because right now, he’s statistically one of the best quarterbacks in football, yet people are still calling for his backup. If he can play strong games, giving the 49ers a chance to win all of them, it could set up a nice playoff run for him. Even though he’s been in the league since 2005, he’s still only played in two playoff games. Winning those big games in the second half of the season would do a lot for his confidence as well as give the unconvinced fans a chance to believe in him.
Has Smith made huge leaps this year? I don’t think so. He’s made nice strides, but I just think he’s finally used to succeeding and he’s playing football the way he’s expected to play. He’s never going to be in the league of Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, or Aaron Rodgers. He’s more like a poor man’s Troy Aikman; he’s heady, has a fantastic running game behind him, and won’t give up leads. He may not throw the deep ball as well as Aikman did, but it’s his biggest flaw. He’s put in position to win football games and so far, he’s six for eight.
He may not ever be an A quarterback and for his career, he’s probably been just a C so far, but for 2012, I think he’s as solid a B+ as you can get.
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