In light of Troy Smith's first start as 49ers quarterback leading to a victory, do we have a quarterback controversy? I am certainly led to believe so. Are the 49ers going anywhere? I don't know. But hey, they won! It's too bad I stopped caring after we lost to the Panthers. If we had won that game, I would actually be very excited right now. As it stands, I just have a casual (and tentative) smile on my face.
But let's put my feelings aside: While I absolutely give props to Troy's gutty performance, there are a lot of other reasons the 49ers won the game (in which the 49ers have been lacking this season).
- First and foremost, the 49ers met their goal of limiting the opponent to 17 or fewer points. They are 2-1 when they match that goal (lost on last second FG to Falcons; Clements blew the game on the same play he won the game). And for a team built around defense since 2005, that goal (<17 points) is absolutely critical.
- Again, the 49ers won the turnover battle. This has actually become a streak of 3 games. If the defense, penalties (and David Carr) hadn't blown the game at Carolina, the 49ers would have won all 3 of those games. As it stands, they have won 2 of those 3.
- The defense made the stop at the end of the game. This has been an absolute Achilles heal for this team in the last.. well, half-decade really. And it never matters how well they were playing for the first 55 minutes: They always blow the game in the end. It was very refreshing to see Spencer intercept that ball to ice the game. However, I'd be a liar if I wasn't feeling the defense on their heels like, "Here we go again..."
- Frank Gore and the running game. It was gritty, tough, and productive. This team wins a huge percentage of their games when Frank Gore has 20+ carries and rushes for over 100 yards.
With all of that said, I'll share my initial thoughts on Troy Smith's performance and the prospects of the 49ers immediate future, both at QB and otherwise. (Inevitably coming within the next few weeks will be "a look into the future" post with my thoughts on the 49ers long-term possibilities).
- Troy Smith: 12 for 19 (63.2%), 196 yards, 1 TD, 0 Int. 1 rushing TD. -
Not a bad start for a guy who's been here for about 5 minutes. The stat line is actually quite similar to his previous 2 starts with the Ravens, so he delivered similarly to what we could have hoped to expect. And while he has been crash-coursing the playbook, he did come from a system with the same "numbers" terminology, so his learning curve is dramatically quicker than that of a guy like Brian Westbrook (west coast terminology his entire career).
But before we get ahead of ourselves: We have seen this before. In fact, does anyone recall the first half? Or first 3 quarters for that matter? It was extremely pedestrian. 2007 49ers type pedestrian. And yet again, a Smith at QB had a huge 4th quarter and let to a win (sort of like the other Smith did @ Seattle back in 2006). I'm not taking anything away from Troy, as he had the guts to make the plays that helped lead to a win. I'm simply guarding from getting too excited.
Troy was surprisingly inaccurate on a lot of passes, and then surprisingly accurate on others. One thing I did notice was how uncomfortable he was inside of the pocket (and after having Alex QB recently, that is saying something). Troy was far better outside of the pocket, where he showed better instincts than the other Smith. He used pump-fakes and used his feet to make adjustments to let plays develop down field. His performance in the first 3 quarters had me wishing Alex (or anyone else... other than Carr) was playing quarterback. But he lit up the 4th quarter and doing so gave him the chance to start a QB controversy.
- Another "guard" against excitement: Anyone remember 2003 when Garcia got banged up & people were chanting for Rattay? Rattay played exceedingly well for a game or two, but started to stink it up afterward. 2004 and 2005 tell you how big of a mistake it was to think Rattay was the future because of a few excellent performances. Also, Alex was tremendous in 2 quarters against the Texans last season, but since has been inconsistent at best. -
Back to Troy. I have to talk about that hail mary pass. First off, terrible decision. There are good deep throws (like last week when Alex hit Vernon for 53 yards) and then there are bad deep throws (Troy's bomb into double coverage to start the game; the hail mary in coverage to Walker at the goal line). Yes, I believe in taking chances, but that is not one of them. He clearly said "fuck it." It was not a calculated risk: it was a blind risk. 9 out of 10 times that ball is intercepted. The other 1 time it is batted down. His chances of completing that pass were closer to 1 in 100. He got extremely lucky, and now he is getting praised for luck.
Troy may be able to develop into something good. Or even great. We have yet to see. However, he will pay for risks like that in the future. BUT, there is the one key factor that I like: He had the guts to do it. I'm not a fan of careless play, but you do have to have a killer instinct to be a winner in the NFL. It seems Troy has that instinct... at least from that one quarter of good play.
- One interesting side note: Troy makes himself seem like he's more mobile than Alex, but it's because of the way he plays; not because of his foot speed. Alex could certainly contend with Troy in a foot race, but Alex rarely shows the good instinct to extend plays and pressure the defense with his feet i.e. guys like Big Ben & Aaron Rodgers). It may be one of the more frustrating issues with Alex. How many bad plays a game could Alex avoid if he extended plays and ran the ball toward scrimmage a few more times? Throwing the ball away can be a good play, but don't make it your trademark. -
Troy made some very nice.. and very bad passes today. However, his nice passes seemed greater than they were simply because of how un-inspiring the offense had been playing. Early on they were calling runs at a 2 to 1 ratio over pass plays to "hide" Troy Smith. Troy made some head-scratching inaccurate passes which didn't garner much confidence, but then he would stick in a nice throw or two that would deserve a smile and a clap. However, late in the game he made many more nice throws exploiting single-covered defenders. And that is something else that must be expressed: due to the 49ers running the ball effectively (and frequently) early in the game, the Broncos were putting pressure on their cornerbacks by bringing up extra defenders. The 49ers offense mandated they were running the ball, and they didn't care who knew it. The key was the execution, and it allowed many more singled receivers late in the game (like the TD to Crabtree).
So, do we have a QB controversy? I would think so. However, I am still very interested in Singletary's next move. Sure, this could be like the next Shaun Hill situation... but Singletary was never in favor of JTO. Singletary is dramatically more invested in Alex Smith, so I would not be surprised if Alex is starting after the bye week (afterall, he knows the offense much better and can make all the adjustments at the line that benefit pass protection and the running game). However, Singletary may ride the fact Troy Smith is 1-0. Either way, I don't think any quarterback will have a long leash. It's pretty damn likely the 49ers starting QB for the rest of the season will be named Smith... it's just a matter of which one. I'm not a fan of a player losing his job to injury, but if he gets outperformed in his absence, so be it.
My guess? I'm very caught in between, but if I had to guess I'd say once Alex is fully healthy, he will be starting again (my guess is he'll be healthy after the bye as he is already out of the sling). However, I would think he will have as short of a leash as ever. And that could either be a very good or very bad thing for Alex. Will he show that aggressive instinct he occasionally shows when under fire or will he continue to be too cautious and mistake prone? And on the flip side: If Troy starts, I don't see him as having a long leash either. If he struggles, Sing could easily go back to Alex. However, Singletary likes to be loyal, so we shall see who he chooses and how long he sticks with him.
All I know is that I am curiously awaiting the coming weeks. What if the 49ers go 2-6 in the first half but 6-2 in the second half? Could 8-8 still win this division? I sure as hell don't expect playoffs, but crazier things have happened.