Alex Smith and The Run Game; Alex Smith and The Defense; Alex Smith in the Red-Zone (random info)

I figured I would write a second article since my first was so well received. Since I was relatively new to Arrowhead Pride at the time I wrote the article, I did not know that much of the content had already been mentioned in some great posts by juvatbull and Andrew Carroll. This post will be much shorter than my first, and will focus mainly on the few things I noticed have not been written about.

Since the topic of this article is also Alex Smith, a quick overview of my feelings on his play might be useful. I think Smith is a very underrated quarterback, particularly in terms of his ability to produce "highlight" plays and a lot of passing yards but also, and obviously most importantly, in his ability to win games. I think the most commonly held views about Smith place undue value on an improperly held conception of the performance in his early years, and I think that while he did improve under Harbaugh, he was running a toned-down offense that may have negatively affected his play in some areas. Some of these will be covered here, but most of them will be covered in my next long-form article that will deal with how Smith's unique talents fit into Reid's WCO offense. This is just a fun little article concerning random aspects of Smith's history and play.

Smith in College

It is easy to look back at the 2005 draft and say the 49ers (and 20 other teams I might add) made a mistake not drafting Aaron Rodgers, but some context might be helpful. Both Smith and Rodgers were coming off amazing college seasons, but there were question marks surrounding both QB's. Rodgers was viewed negatively because he was a product of Jeff Tedford and Smith was viewed as a system QB who benefitted from a creative offensive scheme. Opinions on their NFL futures varied wildly from team to team.

College sports are great only because of the underdog factor present in almost every game. When you learn that many attribute this phenomenon to rampant corruption and favoritism in the NCAA, some of the fun goes away, but still.

Everyone loves seeing Boise State trounce higher ranked BCS teams every year and arguing about the possibility of NCAA playoffs, but do you know the first team to ever "bust the BCS?" It was the 2004 Utah Utes, led by none other than Alex Smith. That season Smith led the Utes to a 12-0 record and a #4 ranking in the AP poll, a ranking that proved to be a little low when they routed Pitt 35-7 in the Fiesta Bowl. Here is a great video that documents that game.

When Urban Meyer led the Gators to multiple BCS championships with Tim Tebow he was hailed as a genius. But when he was the original "BCS Buster" with the Utes, it was Alex Smith, the "Prince of Precision," who got the credit.

The Utes were 12-0 in 2004 and 10-2 in 2003. As a starter at Helix High School (with Reggie Bush as his RB) Smith was undefeated as a starter. Smith had only lost two football games ever when he was drafted first overall in the 2005 draft. This is not to say that he was amazing or anything, but man that 2005 season must have sucked. He threw 32 TD's and 4 INT's in 2004 (rushing for 10 more TD's) and had only 1 total TD to 11 INT's in 2005.

Alex Smith in the Red Zone

As I noted in my first article, "Alex Smith played football before Jim Harbaugh was his coach. Remember?" I do believe Smith improved overall as a QB under Harbaugh but there were some areas I felt he was restrained, particularly big play opportunity. After reading juvatbull's articles about Smith's passing splits I wanted to take a peak at his redzone stats and I noticed something else.

Under Harbaugh, Smith saw his attempts reduced drastically; Harbaugh tailored his gameplan around conservative QB play and this hinged on a paranoid QB. I do not have any tangible evidence to back this up, but a quick glance at some game film tells me that Smith had a lot more freedom as a QB under Singletary. He was much more willing to scramble behind the line of scrimmage and make a play, he appeared more mobile (though he had some happy feet at times) and gunslinger-ish in his 2009-2010 seasons.

There were two features of the Alex Smith-led 49ers that no one really argues: they played lights out defense and they were much too willing to settle for FG's in the redzone. I think that this formula worked very well, but I also think that it was Harbaugh's doing and not Smith's.

I have not seen this mentioned anywhere, but I apologize if it has. Before Harbaugh became HC, the best facet of Smith's game was unquestionably his red-zone decision making and ad-libbing. In 2010, Smith led the league in redzone passer rating (112.8), throwing a whopping 13 TD's to 0 INT's, and, just in case you think this was a fluke, in 2009 he threw for 16 TD's and 0 INT's.

As soon as Harbaugh took over, his performance in the red-zone suffered. His completion pct. went from 70% in 2010 to 37% in 2011, and while he did throw 13 TD's again in 2011, he added 2 INT's.

In 2012 he threw 12 TD's and 2 INT's in the redzone over the first 8 games, but the INT's are deceiving. His comp pct. jumped to 74% in 2012 and over half of his attempts in the redzone went for TD's, which is pretty remarkable.

I am not sure what to expect of Smith's red-zone performance under Andy Reid, but if the preseason is any indicator, his ability to extend plays may be even better than before. This preseason I have seen Smith bend in half backwards Mike Vick-style to complete a pass and spin out of a sack like Tony Romo. Both his ability/willingness to extend plays and red-zone performance suffered under Harbaugh, but his improvement in the redzone from 2011-2012 suggests I might be overstating it.

Alex Smith and the Defense

(This section borrows heavily from an article written by Scott Kasmar, "Breaking the NFC Champion San Francisco 49ers by the Numbers")

Something I have heard quite a bit is the idea that San Francisco's defense and running game helped "carry" the team when Smith was the quarterback, while more of the weight was carried by the QB position when Kaep was starting. I, actually, mostly agree with this assessment, but I am not sure the causality is demonstrated correctly.

I agree that Kaep shouldered more of the load when he was starting, but I have no idea why this is something to be valued. The fact is, the defense and the running game were both forced to take the backseat over the second half of the season in order for Kaep to be able to step into the spotlight.

Smith and the Niners set a bunch of old-school, quirky records while they were together. In 2011, they became the first team since the Decatur Staley's not to allow a rushing TD over the first 14 games of the season. In 2012, against the Bills, Smith and the Niners became the first team in NFL history to pass for 300 yards and rush for 300 yards in the same game, and their 621 yards that day was the 15th highest mark in history. The really funny thing about that game is that Smith only threw 24 passes, and only 9 in the second half. If Harbaugh hadn't abandoned the pass in the third quarter Smith could have topped 450 in this game easily. This type of balance between the offense/defense and passing/running games is largely absent in today's NFL.

People see these stats and assume the defense was causing Smith's performance, but what if I told you that Smith's performance directly benefitted the defense as well? What if I told you that in 2011, the Niners defense allowed only 14.3 points per game and that in the first 8 games of 2012 they were on track to best that mark, allowing only 12.9, but that as soon as Kaepernick took over they started allowing 21.3?

And, just in case you think that the offense also saw some kind of full TD per game increase, the offense scored 23.6 ppg under Smith and 26 with Kaep. Here is a great chart, mostly yanked from another article, that charts some of these stats. (It is, of course, worth noting that Smith and Kaepernick faced different teams over these games and also had to deal with varying injury issues on their own team (Justin Smith being of note))


Smith (Games 1-8)

Kaep (Games 9-16)




Points Per Game



Points Allowed Per Game



Strength of Schedule



Passing YPA



Sack Pct.



Passer Rating



Team YPC



Frank Gore YPC



3rd Down Conversions

36/95 (.379)

32/99 (.323)

Red Zone TD Pct.

15/24 (.625)

13/31 (.419)

This argument may be a little too ambitious, but I will give it a shot. Many people hold the view that playing the "field position" and "time of possession" games are outdated strategies akin to "establishing the run." I am not so convinced, and contrary to popular opinion, I don't think scoring quickly is better than scoring slowly, and I don't think they are equal, I actually think that taking your time is much, much better; both when scoring in football and in life.

Why? Because you get to keep all of the momentum (you do have to finish these long drives), demoralize the other team by keeping them off the field, and keep your defense fresh and confident. Because new-school football thinking disagrees with me, and because coaches like Chip Kelly are becoming famous for winning games while losing both the "time of possession" and "field position" games, most of you probably disagree with me as well. New advanced football metrics like ESPN's EPA (expected points added) are built off the assumption that the goal of every play you run is to score the ball. It is this very assumption that led to Kaepernick's rise to stardom and the trade that resulted in your new starting QB.

I do not think Alex Smith is (necessarily) better than Colin Kaepernick, but I also think the days of San Francisco consistently having one of the top two scoring defenses in the league are over. You can't play explosive, boom/bust football on offense and consistently put your defense in the best possible situation; they simply don't go together.

Alex Smith and the Run Game

Reading the defense is a skill that is most often attributed to game managers, but I think it is a vital skill to have. As the chart shows, Kaepernick was much more explosive than Smith was on a per play basis, but isn't it surprising that the team averaged less yards per carry under Kaepernick? Look at the huge dip in Frank Gore's production. When Smith was under center Gore consistently ranked in the top five in YPC, but with Kaep under center he was averaging a very mediocre 4.01. For all the gushing you hear people do about the opportunities the read-option opens for the run game, it seems that a cerebral QB who continually changes plays to put his RB in the best position to succeed is a better asset to have.

Aaron Rodgers, like Colin Kaepernick is a very athletic QB with a cannon for an arm, but you won't either being described as cerebral. What very intelligent QB's are able to do is create opportunities for their run game by playing off what the defense gives them. Tom Brady, specifically, has been able to fabricate a run game for years without a marquee RB or run-blocking O-Line. This is one reason why Brady is a 4th quarter dynamo and Rodgers has trouble closing games. The 4th quarter is where you really need to know how to run it. (Don't believe me? )

When Alex Smith and the Niners played Rodgers and the Pack Week 1, the Packers had not lost at Lambeau in their last 23 meetings. Smith was the first QB to beat Rodgers in his home building in almost two years, and he was able to do it exactly how that article implies you should try to beat the Pack: get on top early and control the clock to limit Rodgers' opportunities. The current Packers (much like Peyton Manning led-teams) are classic "front-runners." They play their best football when they get an early lead, and a big one. (Which, conveniently, they are able to do quite often)

Harbaugh ran a conservative, balanced offense with Smith under center. But, in order to get this early lead and beat one of the best teams in the NFL, Harbaugh had to rely on Smith, calling pass plays on 20 of the first 30 offensive snaps. After they got the lead, they relied on Smith's ability to control the game (by managing it, you might say) and keep Rodgers off the field and convincingly win the Time of Possession battle. Despite giving up a special teams TD, only causing one turnover and Smith throwing for almost 100 fewer yards than Rodgers, the Niners were able to come out of Title Town with a win. (To be clear, I am NOT saying Smith is a better QB than Rodgers)

Putting it all together

The Chiefs defense is going to make huge strides with Smith under center, and with a more sophisticated screen game at his disposal, Jamaal Charles should have endless opportunities with the football with Smith distributing it.

(I might have been able to get away with fewer words, because if any fanbase in the NFL should be open to the notion that QB play directly affects the performance of the defense, its the Chiefs)

One of the underlying assumptions of the original West Coast offense was that if you could get 4 yards with every offensive play you would win every game. In this new Madden-era of football, this seems to have been flipped on its head. Now fifty yards is fifty yards, whether it resulted from one of Joe Flacco's jaw-dropping heaves or one of Tom Brady's "boring" dink-and-dunk drives; I, for one, still think there is a difference.

Here are links to the two Scott Kacsmar articles that formed the basis of this article, and as usual, thanks for reading!

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.