FanPost

Alex Smith played football before Jim Harbaugh was his coach. Remember?

People are much too quick to forget that Alex Smith was already a six-year veteran when Harbaugh strolled into town and turned around the stale 49ers. We have created such a dichotomy between these "bust" years and his success as a "game-manager" under Harbaugh that we view his past statistics as if they are from another area. Never analyzed or looked into, they are only used for passing swift judgments like "Smith has never thrown for 20 TDs or 3000 yards in a season," both clearly bust-worthy statistics.

When Alex Smith was signed to a one-year contract before the 2011 season, 49er fans responded by writing off the year as another lost cause. They were absolutely positive that they had seen enough of Smith and could not succeed with him as the starting quarterback. Here is what Smith's career statistics looked like at that time.

Comps

Atts

Comp Pct.

Yards

Yards/Att.

TD

INT

QBR

2005

84

165

50.9

875

5.3

1

11

40.8

2006

257

442

58.1

2890

6.54

16

16

74.8

2007

94

193

48.7

914

4.74

2

4

57.2

2008

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

2009

225

372

60.5

2350

6.32

18

12

81.5

2010

204

342

59.6

2370

6.93

14

10

82.1

When you see this it is no surprise he is now called a game manager. Heck, it even seems pretty nice given his atrocious performance in his early years. These are the first 6 years he played in the league, and true to the criticism he had never thrown for over 3000 yards or 20 touchdowns; statistics that were (are) constantly used to demean him. But in these six years he only played one full season; 2006, his first season as a starter and the only year there wasn't a quarterback controversy in San Francisco.

When people attempt to map out Smith's future as a Chief, they only use his Harbaugh-era statistics as the foundation for their predictions. They see the 3,144 yards he threw for in 2011 as his career high (it is his career high), and use this paired with the knowledge that he has been in the league longer than Jay Cutler to assume he throwing for 4000 would unthinkable. Here is why these first six years must be taken into account as well: you are looking at them all wrong, and they aren't nearly as bad as they seem. Smith may not have won that many games (he won more than you think), but there is a lot to be learned of Alex Smith's potential to run a high-powered offense from these years. Let's go through year by year.

His rookie year yielded quite possibly the worst stat line ever for a modern-day quarterback. He threw just 1 TD to 11 INT's, a ratio that is truly so bad, that for the purposes of trend making the year should be completely ignored. Even a mediocre year would be such an improvement over this year that it would appear Smith is headed for stardom. Smith was the No.1 overall pick, which meant that he faced sky-high expectations from day one and went to one of the worst teams in the league. Many QB's in this situation did poorly their first year and went on to have successful careers. (Eli Manning, John Elway, Troy Aikman, Terry Bradshaw).

2006 was a very interesting, and largely forgotten year for Smith and the 49ers. Smith improved drastically, throwing 16 TD's to 16 INT's and only missing the playoffs by one game. Smith would have gotten much more recognition for his performance if he had thrown for just a few more TD's or had a few more wins. A 17-15 TD-INT ratio or 9-7 record is just immensely more psychologically palatable for some reason.

2007 & 2008 are the years that should immediately be forgotten. In 2007, Smith started by leading consecutive 4th quarter comebacks in Weeks 1 & 2 before losing to Pittsburgh in Week 3. Then, in Week 4, he suffered a season ending injury to his throwing shoulder. He played a few more games in 2007 against his doctor's wishes (but firmly in line his coach's) and then had to sit out the next year and a half dealing with surgeries resulting from the torn shoulder.

Simply by cutting out these three years from your analysis (2005, 2007, 2008), the stats look much better. A lot has been made of the INT's he threw earlier in his career, and that for a long time he was the only starting QB with more career INT's than TD's, but he only threw more INT's than TD's in his rookie year and his injury plagued 2007 campaign.

I think most would agree ignoring Smith's 2007 & 2008 seasons due to the circumstances is fair, but giving a QB a "pass" on his rookie year is more controversial. But again, no one is as bad as Smith was that year. Not even Smith's most vile, evil critic (most certainly a 49er fan) would suggest that 1TD-11INT's and a 40 QBR is representative of his performance.

But still, a problem remains; Smith barely played half of each of the 2009 & 2010 seasons, continually being ridiculed and yanked out of the starting lineup by Singletary, how would he have done in calmer waters?

2009-2010

The Singletary era. This article was motivated primarily by my personal fascination around these years. I have watched every single one of Smith's games since 2009, and one of my favorites is still his first game back from the injury. He was put in for Shaun Hill in Week 7 of the 2009 season against Houston and almost led the 49ers back from a 21-point deficit with a 200 yard 3 TD second half performance. This game is almost a perfect microcosm of his entire career. Everyone takes note of 400 yard passing games, but no one notices 200 yard half-games. Smith has, as you probably know, never thrown for 400 yards in a single game; but in his first game back from a serious injury, two years removed from his only full year as a starter, Smith was on pace to throw 412 yards and 6 TD's. But alas, typical of the 49ers of this time, the thrilling comeback fell just short and the 49ers lost 21-24. Alex Smith's career statistics follow a similar narrative; any positive play is outweighed in people's memories by the games he played poorly, and worst of all, the games he did not play at all.

In 2009 Smith started only 10 games. He came in after exactly half of the Texans game and then finished the season as the starter. He played exactly 10.5 games.

In 2010 Smith started the first seven games, and then played the first half of the Carolina game, throwing only one incomplete pass in the second half before getting injured. He then returned with the playoffs on the line in Week 16 to play the 4th quarter against St. Louis, and finished the game at QB. He played 9.75 games plus 1 incomplete pass. (9.75 games for statistical purposes)

Here are his statistics from these two years.

Comps

Atts

Comp Pct.

Yards

Yds/Att

TD

INT

QBR

2009

225

372

60.5

2350

6.32

18

12

81.5

2010

204

342

59.6

2370

6.93

14

10

82.1

Despite our best efforts, it is impossible to view these numbers as we do the statistics of other young quarterbacks (remember, this are only his 2nd & 3rd "full" years). Because they are so far removed from his early career, and because they are not full-season numbers, only the yards per attempt, completion percentage, and QB rating would be expected to remain unchanged if he had played a full season each year. But converting the statistics to fit a full season brings its own set of concerns. Namely, how we are to predict them with any accuracy. It could be done based on attempts, taking the average number of attempts Smith had in his full seasons and adjusting the stats to fit that number. But because the nature of each offense is different, and he was running different offenses almost every year, this seems dishonest. In my mind, the only way to predict how Smith would have done if he had played 16 games each year is to multiply the relevant statistics by the ratio of games he missed. Because Smith played about 10 full games in each of these seasons this seems like the best approach. While it is possible the game situations he would have encountered in the last six games would not precisely mirror those in the first ten, ten games is an ample sample size for representative purposes. He started over 8 games each year, and because he came in at definable landmarks in each of the games he did not start (halftime, 4th quarter) we have very frank game counts of 10.5 & 9.75. When we multiply the relevant statistics of 2009 by 1.52381 & 2010 by 1.64103 here is what we get.

Comps

Atts

Comp Pct.

Yards

Yds/Att

TD

INT

QBR

2009(x)

343

566

60.5

3581

6.32

27

18

81.5

2010(x)

335

561

59.6

3889

6.93

23

16

82.1

His 27 TD's in 2009 would have been good enough for 8th in the league and his 3889 yards in 2010 would have placed him 9th that year, just 11 yards behind Tom Brady. These are not mind-blowing statistics, but they certainly paint a much different picture of Smith than the one being flashed in your face everyday.

Imagine for a moment that Mike Singletary was never fired in 2010, Mike Johnson kept his job as offensive coordinator and Alex Smith was resigned for the 2011 season. Assuming the fans would not have burned the stadium down (they would have), and Alex stayed healthy all 16 games (he wouldn't have), his progression in that Mike Johnson-led offense (it was/is his only offensive coordinator gig to date, by the way) suggests he would have thrown for over 4000 yards in 2011. Let the preposterousness of that hypothetical sink in for a moment.

Now, do I think Smith was better during these years than in 2011 & 2012? No. But I also don't think he was a game manager, then or now. He was on pace to be throwing the ball 550+ times a year, he wasn't completing a lot of passes and he threw a lot of interceptions. That's not typical of a game manager, it's much more gunslinger-ish. Then, under Harbaugh, he led the 49ers to within one (two) dropped punts of the Superbowl; along the way leading the 49ers to one of their most thrilling playoff victories ever (one of many, but that's not his fault). If being responsible for 4 TD's (3 Passing, 1 Rushing), 327 yards, 0 turnovers, and 2 go-ahead drives in the last four minutes of a divisional playoff game against the Drew Brees led Saints is akin to being a game manager, then I don't understand the term.

If you have access to any game broadcasts from 2009 or 2010, watch them. The commentators would constantly mention how Smith only had success in the "spread" offense when the 49ers were throwing a lot. I have no idea how this conception of an uber-conservative quarterback was accepted so quickly, but it doesn't match the tape at all. Harbaugh does not pass the ball a lot; and Harbaugh had more success than Singletary. That doesn't change the fact that when Smith was on the field in 2009 & 2010, most agreed that the best chance the 49ers had to win the game was to spread it out and let Smith gun it.

"I think he's a better quarterback when you open it up a bit offensively, formationally, and let this guy go to work in the passing game"

(Rich Gannon 10/17/2010)

The reason people were willing to accept the idea that Smith could be nothing more than a game manager in 2011, and again today, is because Smith was proclaimed a "bust" in his early years. But this isn't because of his success on the field, it was due to the circumstances surrounding his time on the field.. What he did in 2009, 2010 has been misconstrued as failure only because Smith played just enough reps to have his statistics appear comparable to a full season, and just too few to actually be. The truly ironic thing is that 9 games of passing yards should never seem comparable to a full season, even one of a game manager; the only reason it was is because he was actually on pace to throw for quite a few of them.

When Smith walked on the field Week 7 of the 2009 season to play the Texans, the commentators were talking about a career resurgence. What career? He had been there 4 years and only played meaningful snaps in 1 full season and a handful of games. He was a young, developing quarterback being treated like a 35-year-old Jeff George.

"Here's that spread offense again that Alex Smith is so comfortable with...We are going to see, going forward, could [Smith's performance] fundamentally change the philosophy the 49ers have offensively."

(Brian Billick, 10/25/09 v. Texans)

2011-2012

As I mentioned earlier, I do believe Smith's performance improved considerably in 2011 and then even more in 2012. Let's give 2012 the same treatment we gave 2009-2010 and see what he get. Smith started the first 9 games, getting injured well before halftime against St. Louis and only throwing one pass later against Arizona. This means he played just short of 8.5 games.

Comps

Atts

Comp Pct.

Yards

Yds/Att

TD

INT

QBR

2011

273

445

61.3

3144

7.07

17

5

90.7

2012(x)

288

410

70.2

3270

7.97

25

9

104.1

As you can see, the criticism that Harbaugh was "protecting" his quarterback was largely correct. Smith was throwing the ball much less under Harbaugh than he was under Singletary. In 2011 he threw only 3 more passes than he did in 2006.

If these would have been his actual 2012 stats, his 410 attempts would have been 25th in the league, sandwiched right between Jay Cutler (434) & Robert Griffin III (393). Smith's 104.1 rating, 3270 yards and 25 TD's all would have been higher than both of these gunslingers' (and bona fide franchise QB's) respective numbers (Cutler: 81.3, 3033, 19; RG3: 102.4, 3200, 20).

Holistics

It appears I have now created quite a maze for myself to navigate. Smith as a gunslinger does not win, but Smith as a "game manager" does. How am I to separate the success from the game-managing? Smith will be throwing the ball quite a bit under Andy Reid, are Chiefs fans to expect the 2010 version of Smith or the 2012?

I have decided that of Smith's 8 years as a 49er, only 5 really matter. 2005 was his rookie year, and in 2007-2008 he did not play but a few games, most dealing with an injury that should have kept him off the field. Every season that he played 8+ games (half a season) is included. And, because of the aforementioned method, we are able to get a peek at what Smith's performance would have been like if he played 5 full seasons, instead of random bits.

Comps

Atts

Comp Pct.

Yards

Yds/Att

TD

INT

QBR

2006

257

442

58.1

2840

6.54

16

16

74.8

2009(x)

343

566

60.5

3581

6.32

27

18

81.5

2010(x)

335

561

59.6

3889

6.93

23

16

82.1

2011

273

445

61.3

3144

7.07

17

5

90.7

2012(x)

288

410

70.2

3270

7.97

25

9

104.1

I believe a dynamic, 8-year trend of improvement is a stronger indicator of future performance than the static dichotomy previously unearthed. Which is to say, if Smith was already improving before Harbaugh arrived, there is no reason to think his future success is tied to Harbaugh specifically.

Smith displays almost unnerving improvement across his entire career. The three categories that are not "directly" affected by attempts (Comp Pct, Yds/Att, and QBR) show a consistent upward trend. His Comp Pct. improved every year but 2010, his Yds/Att improved every year but 2009, and his QBR, remarkably, increased every single year. This improvement culminated in the 2012 season.If he had finished that year with these statistics (and he was only a few attempts short of qualifying for these records without my method by the way), Smith's completion percentage would have been the 3rd best mark in NFL history (nestled right between Young & Montana's best seasons) and his QB rating would have been 3rd for the year.

"Smith had never thrown for 3000 yards in a season before 2011"

"Smith has never thrown for 20 TD's in a season"

"Smith will never be elite"

I began this article with these three criticisms in mind; three criticisms that every 49er fan has either heard or spoken dozens of times over the past few years. Each of these criticisms (facts) are based on a Quarterback's performance over a full 16 game season, but when you actually adjust his stats to fit a full year, the criticisms seem ridiculous. Smith would have only thrown for under 3000 yards his first year starting, getting pretty close to 4000 yards in only his third full year as a starter. Smith would have averaged 21.6 TD's a season over these 5 years and he would have crossed both the 70% comp pct & 100+ QBR thresholds. Those are bona fide elite statistics. (Did someone say Elite?)

If you are still reading I think I can assume two things with impunity: you have at least somewhat bought into my method of using the ratio of games played in Smith's 2009, 2010, & 2012 seasons to get a fuller picture of his performance, and you have noticed that of the previous three criticisms, I had never mentioned the third before-that "Smith will never be elite."

And yes, that is where I am taking it.

The Future

I do not know what exactly defines an elite quarterback. It doesn't really mean anything but fan approval + Superbowl win as far as I am concerned, but since it is the hot term today I am going to stick with it. There is a small group of QB's that almost everyone agrees is elite: Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees & Eli Manning. I would also argue for the inclusion of guys like Ben Roethlisberger, but such a discourse would indicate I actually agree with using the mostly meaningless label.

Between those five, I will compare Alex Smith to Tom Brady, Eli Manning & Drew Brees. Brady is arguably the greatest quarterback of all time, with 3 Superbowl wins, 5 appearances and an unprecedented level of success over the past 13 years. Brees is arguably the most prolific, throwing for over 5000 yards in consecutive years and consistently running one of the most high-powered offenses in the league. Manning is the most recent addition to the elite group and, like Smith, went to an atrocious team with the first overall pick in the draft. They are of similar age and played over the same time period, so Eli is perhaps the best QB to judge Smith's progression against. (Eli:2004, Alex:2005) All of these QB's started on bad teams and had to improve alongside them. (Rodgers is excluded because he went to a good team and Peyton is excluded because I think everyone reading this hates him)

I will focus on the all-encompassing statistic of Quarterback Rating. Because every QB but Eli missed time in at least one season, and I do not have time to expand those seasons with the same game-ratio method, I will use QBR. There is a similar trend when using ESPN's QBR & PFF's DVOA metrics, but these were not around in the early 2000's. All of the QB's rookie seasons have been excluded for the sake of fairness (told ‘ya it was fair) and Smith's 2007 & 2008 seasons have also been excluded due to injury. No other QB missed a full season in their first five years playing, let alone almost 2.

Year

1

2

3

4

5

Tom Brady

86.5

85.7

85.9

92.6

92.3

Drew Brees

76.9

67.5

104.8

89.2

96.2

Eli Manning

75.9

77.0

73.9

86.4

93.1

Alex Smith

74.8

81.5

82.1

90.7

104.1

Not much to see, lets put each of their years in order from best to worst.

Year 1

Year 2

Year 3

Year 4

Year 5

First

Tom Brady 86.5

Tom Brady 85.7

Drew Brees 104.8

Tom Brady 92.6

Alex Smith 104.1

Second

Drew Brees 76.9

Alex Smith 81.5

Tom Brady 85.9

Alex Smith 90.7

Drew Brees 96.2

Third

Eli Manning 75.9

Eli Manning 77.0

Alex Smith 82.1

Drew Brees 89.2

Eli Manning 93.1

Fourth

Alex Smith 74.8

Drew Brees 67.5

Eli Manning 73.9

Eli Manning 86.4

Tom Brady 92.3

Tom Brady is the model of consistency you would expect, but Brees and Smith were the only two to reach the 100+ club so early in their careers. Manning struggled early on, being the only QB in the group to have three seasons under 80. By their fourth seasons they were all above 80 and by their fifth they were all above 90. Brady was the only one not to have a season under 80. Brees had both the worst (67.5) and best (104.8) years on the board. Smith was the only one to improve every single year.

Still, this is only QB rating. While it should be quite surprising that Smith compares so well against these "elite" QB's, QB rating is an outdated metric that certainly does not correlate with fan approval (though it probably does with Superbowl rings).

Let us do another table for wins. Smith had 3 head coaches and 5 offensive coordinators over this period while the other 3 QB's shared 4 Superbowls (Brady-3, Eli-1) & only 4 (all quite possibly HOF) coaches (Belichick, Coughlin, Schottenheimer, Payton) so this, presumably, should not turn out well for Smith.

Year 1

Year 2

Year 3

Year 4

Year 5

First

Tom Brady 11-5(x)

Tom Brady 9-7

Tom Brady 14-2

Tom Brady 14-2

Alex Smith 12-3-1(x)

Second

Eli Manning 11-5

Alex Smith 8-8(x)

Drew Brees 12-4(x)

Alex Smith 13-3

Drew Brees 10-6

Third

Drew Brees 8-8

Eli Manning 8-8

Eli Manning 10-6

Eli Manning 12-4

Tom Brady 10-6

Fourth

Alex Smith 7-9

Drew Brees 4-12(x)

Alex Smith 6-10(x)

Drew Brees 9-7

Eli Manning 8-8

Unfortunately, Manning was the only one to play all five seasons, with Brady missing games in one season, Brees in two, and Smith in three. So team wins were used in those seasons. This helped Brees' season win pct. the most and Brady's the least, with Smith's largely unaffected. When you add it all up "their" records in these years were: Brady: 58-22(.72); Manning: 49-31(.61); Smith: 46-33-1(.58); & Brees: 43-37(.54).

Dénouement

Almost all Smith supporters can proudly name the point he "turned his career around." Some say it was the playoff game against the Saints; some say the start of the 2011 season. Those that have been around a while point to the fabled night of 10/10/10. Not even we supporters are able to see Smith's career as one single, continuous development.

Alex Smith is only going to get better, and, as a Chief, he will finally live up to the expectations of being a number one overall draft pick. Did it take him a long time to start living up to that potential? Yes, it did, and while much of that was out of his control (the shoulder injury, starting as a 20 year old rookie, the rookie salaries being doled out in the mid-2000s), Alex Smith was never going to be a quarterback that walked on the field and immediately dazzled us. And every single Niner executive and fan should have known that when they drafted him.

"He is a guy that, until he understands it, he is nonfunctional...Alex Smith is a person that, once he is taught, he has to learn it all. "

(Urban Meyer, Smith's head coach at Utah, 2005)

http://www.sacbee.com/static/weblogs/49ers/archives/020594.html

You have to make a huge leap to buy into the message of this article, but I don't think that leap is any bigger than the one every commentator takes when they pass judgment on Smith's career without digging into the facts. Not even the facts about his injuries and coaching turnover; hell, not even multiple facts, just the fact that he is a nine-year veteran that has only played two full seasons. One of those seasons left the 49ers one game short of the playoffs; the other led them to the NFC championship. Smith is a nine-year veteran with the tape of a 4 year guy and he is still getting better. How often do you see that in the Not-For-Long NFL?

49er fans never appreciated Alex Smith. He was being run out of town all the way back in 2009, and how fast Kaepernick was accepted is proof that Smith could not stay a 49er, concussion or no concussion. Niner fans almost brag about giving Smith nine seasons to show his worth, as if the team's failures over this time period somehow absolve them of Smith's treatment. A QB that fought through injury to play, always kept his mouth shut, always worked hard, always worked for the benefit of team; and, most importantly, a QB who won. Niner fans didn't want to see it. Now you can say you did.



This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of Arrowhead Pride's writers or editors. It does reflect the views of this particular fan though, which is as important as the views of Arrowhead Pride writers or editors.

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