Oh Alex Smith. I think more words have been spent discussing him and his various flaws and good qualities than any other Niner since he's been drafted. This season, he's been playing a lot better, but because the Niners have not thrown the ball a lot, he's been called a 'Game Manager' by pretty much everyone. For those who somehow still don't get this, a 'Game Manager' is a label given to a QB who doesn't make mistakes and lets his teammates win the game, which are good things, but it's also a slight - it basically says about the QB, 'He can't make plays' and 'He depends on his teammates'. And while it's true that Smith has been mostly avoiding mistakes and not making huge plays, I think it's time we all stop this ridiculousness of calling him game manager.
There was nothing remotely "elite" about the blue work shirt Alex Smith wore following the San Francisco 49ers' 27-20 victory over the New York Giants in Week 10. The team-issued shirt, untucked and featuring an "Alex" name patch sewn onto the left chest area, reflects the blue-collar mindset coach Jim Harbaugh has established since taking over the 49ers. Mechanics, not million-dollar athletes, typically wear them. If that makes Smith merely a wardrobe manager without the fashion sense of Tom Brady or other elite NFL dressers, so be it.
Wait, that's not the quote I was looking for.
The 49ers proved Sunday they could run the offense through Smith and still defeat a playoff-caliber team featuring a Super-Bowl winning quarterback in Eli Manning. They threw 11 times in their first 13 plays and got only 50 yards from their running backs, including zero on six carries from Frank Gore, who injured a knee and did not finish the game.
Sure, the 49ers needed two interceptions and a furious defensive stand in the final minute. Yes, Manning made a few "wow" throws that Smith and other quarterbacks aren't likely to make. But this game will nonetheless put Smith's detractors on the defensive. It was the fourth time this season Smith and the 49ers turned a fourth-quarter deficit into victory.
Smith did his part, completing 19 of 30 passes for 242 yards and the go-ahead touchdown pass to Vernon Davis in the fourth quarter. Smith also carried six times for 27 yards, with one run setting up a 39-yard field goal. Smith's lone interception bounced off receiver Ted Ginn Jr.'s hands, killing a likely scoring drive before halftime. Smith now has 19 touchdowns and four interceptions in his last 14 starts. The 49ers have an 11-3 record in those games.
Look at those numbers again. 14 starts, 19 touchdowns, 4 interceptions. That's incredible. It's a Brees or Brady-like TD/INT ratio, and it gets better if you discount today's interception, a perfect throw that bounced right off the hands of Ginn. No, he isn't passing as much as them, but that doesn't matter to the ratio - those QBs have more touchdowns but also more interceptions.
However, the bigger point that Sando makes, and the thing that has finally convinced me of Smith's change, is that we won today's ballgame with Frank Gore running for 0 yards. If you'd told me before the game that we'd win and score 27 points, I'd have asked if Gore had ran for 125 yards or 150.
Smith's numbers today aren't fantastic: 19/30 for 242 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT, 85.7 NFL passer rating. Those are solid but not at all great, or even really good. However, though I'm a stat nerd, I'm going to have to use that crutch that I hate so much - you had to watch the game. Smith was making good decisions, his throws were accurate, and he made plays when he had to, and he did it without Frank Gore carrying the offense as per the usual plan. Once you account for QB runs and sacks, the Niners called 38 passing plays and 14 running plays, a big difference from their usual 44/56 pass/run ratio, and Smith stepped up to the challenge and delivered the W. According to passer rating, he outplayed Eli Manning, who is constantly brought up with the best QBs in the league (and if you discount the second Manning INT, you must also discount Smith's). Though I thought Eli made some plays that Smith couldn't have made, Smith's team got the victory, and unlike weeks where we can point to the Niners' rushing yardage, the Giants actually outperformed us in that area.
This game is not the only game in which Smith has made big plays, though. He was 9/9 for 150-something yards and 2 TDs in the 3rd quarter of the Eagles game, and he made the biggest play of the Niners' season so far, the 4th Down pass to Delanie Walker that won us the Lions game.
Based on this week, and based on his performance this season and at the end of last season, I think the 'Smith is a game manager' argument has to stop. He's proven that he can make plays when he needs to, and he's proven that the offense can run through him and still be victorious. Is he as good as the Aaron Rodgers, the Tom Bradys, and the Drew Brees of this world? Maybe not. Can the 49ers win with him at the helm of the offense? Yes.
On that note, I think it's beginning to be time to evaluate the Niners' QB strategy in the long term. While he hasn't actually said anything about it yet, I feel confident that Smith is happy with Harbaugh and would accept an extension if the team offered him one. However, the Niners' plans have to be based around their recent draft choice, Colin Kaepernick. If the Niners keep up their winning ways, we should clinch the NFC West sometime soon, and that would allow us to get CK7 some more playing time to see what he could do with the offense. So far, his only playing time has been in the late stages of the blowout vs the Buccaneers, and he looked solid in that game, completing all 3 of his passes including a bomb to Josh Morgan (though sadly Morgan was injured on the play). I think the Niners should wait to see how he does before deciding on a plan of action with Smith.
All that matters right now, though, is that the Niners keep winning, and with Smith at the helm, I have all the confidence in the world that they'll continue doing just that.