I was taking a look at just the point differential in Alex Smith's games as a starter, and I found something that may interest some readers. In games decided by 3 points or less, the 49ers have a 4-19 record. In all other games starting Alex Smith, the 49ers have a 15-12 record.
This is huge. It's a 38% difference. I already knew we were bad in close games, but I didn't expect that much of discrepancy.
Let me share with you my thoughts on what this means for the Smith and the Niners as a team, and feel free to disagree with me here.
1) For whatever reason, the Niners have not been good in clutch situations.
This is the most obvious point, so I'll put it first. There are many factors that can lead to close losses: bad luck, lack of poise, poor clock management, playing against Joe Montana. In watching the Niners break my heart time and time again, it seems like Alex tends to have a semi-brilliant second half or fourth quarter, but always falls short. But I wouldn't blame him for all or even most of the losses, as I'll explain later.
2) The coaching, particularly in the 4th quarter, must improve. This includes scheme, clock management, and above all, not yelling at your starting QB, pretending to start a backup, and then walking around like you smelled a seriously soiled diaper.
And I believe (in fact, I know) it will improve. Harbaugh's hiring is, as we all know, a vast improvement on most of his recent predecessors. Our defense tends to fall apart when we have the lead in a close game, and because the 49ers have a relatively good defense, I would attribute many losses to that most hated of defensive schemes, the prevent defense. So many times we have squandered a lead due to slants and short routes with 10:00 left in the 4th. Sad times.
3) Alex Smith, and the Niners in general, have been uncommonly unlucky.
Regression to the mean is one of my favorite things in statistics, and I think it may be one of the greatest boons in Alex Smith's career. You don't lose that many games just by being "unclutch." Put it this way. If Alex had an 11-12 record in close games instead of 4-19, he would be at a cool .500. No matter how many problems you may have with coaching, poise, etc, a .174 record in close games is an outlier and will be rectified.
4) The Niners are an underrated team.
This has been hinted at earlier in my post, but it is, in my estimation, very obvious. Aside from the talent on this team, our W-L record over the past 5 years is on very shaky ground, and could easily have swung the other way. I see no reason why it shouldn't in the coming years, especially with a competent coaching staff and a (hopefully) confident quarterback.
None of this is ground-breaking analysis, but I mean it mostly as a word of encouragement for discouraged fans. The Niners have been struggling for years in a weak division, but their W-L record has clearly not reflected the latent talent and ability of this team. I see no reason why this potential should not break forth in a flood of wins and joyful toasting. Also, I think if Alex Smith can have some job security underneath him and a little more support from the coaching staff, he can turn a lot of those close losses into glorious victories. I look forward to the coming season.