Fooch's Note: Excellent write-up on a topic that has been at the heart of many discussions in recent weeks. Thanks Grant.
In the run-up to the 49ers game vs. the New York Giants, much was made about whether Alex Smith is or is not an "elite" quarterback, partially because players, coaches, and media-types have all noticed that Alex has not been asked to do a lot, and partially because Eli himself has raised the question of what elite quarterback play means in today's NFL. Eli has wanted to claim that he belongs in the same category as Brady, Peyton, Brees and Aaron Rodgers. Most have argued that Alex is not elite because he's a different type of QB--he's a game manager.
What this whole debate has missed is the fact that the fundamental distinction is not between elite QBs and game managers; it's between Artist QBs and Workmanlike QBs. QBs of either type can become elite, depending on how they are used in a system, and how they perform under pressure.Artist QBs tend to throw more wow throws both because they work with a wider palate of colors (throw options), and because such throws are demanded by the offensive systems they play in. Workmanlike QBs tend to throw throws with lower degrees of difficulty due to arm strength or accuracy limitations; they throw shorter distances and against coverages that motion or play action have made more clearly defined for the quarterback. This is the product of what Greg Cosell (a legendary NFL Films guru and tape-watching fiend) calls the "management and manipulation of the quarterback."
Someone like Eli Manning is more of an artist QB than Alex Smith, but with Artist QBs, the risk of interceptions goes up. Eli is a different kind of QB partially because he has different limitations than Alex (perhaps fewer—that much isn’t totally clear at this point), and because Alex is asked to do much different things for the 49ers. If there has been a throw that has been "artist-like" in Alex’s repertoire, it’s been his throw to Vernon Davis (or, this year, Walker)down the seam, but defenses are always watching for that one and Davis has been doubled on it this year, so we’ve seen it less.
My point in saying all this is that even artist QBs need to "manage the game" in some fashion. This was proven definitively with the way Peyton checked his way down to a Super Bowl ring. This isn’t to say that Peyton is fundamentally a "game manager" type quarterback; he is an artist quarterback, and that very fact forced the Bears to play a simple coverage scheme that made him make throws that even more workmanlike QBs can make.
The post-corner and double-move throws that the Giants constantly have Eli making are difficult to make, and even more difficult to defend. And they can go for big yardage. But I, for one, am happy that the 49ers aren’t asking Alex to make those kinds of throws. As Alex put it "I managed my way to a win." Isn’t Coach Herm right when he says that "YOU PLAY TO WIN THE GAME!" A lot of 49er fans, former players, and media types have said "the Niners need to open up the offense." But isn’t it good coaching to recognize the talents (and limitations) your players have and to put them in positions to succeed? And if your team is succeeding, why change the formula?