What happens when you try to look for a season that comes close to Alex Smith's 2011 campaign? You might, as I did, stumble into Jake Plummer's 2005 season with the Denver Broncos. As 49er fans, it's easy to forget Mr. Plummer because he only lasted one year into the realignment with Arizona, losing only four (out of four games started) of his starts against the 49ers (in his defense, he left Arizona the same time Dennis Erickson came into San Francisco). So now that we've remembered who Jake Plummer was, jump through the break to find out where you can get yourself a pig that flies.
Alex Smith in 2011 and Jake Plummer in 2005 compare in a number of ways, starting with...
Starting a full 16 games, Smith attempted 445 passes and threw only 5 interceptions. That's cutting out more than 68% of his interceptions compared to his career average prior to 2011. Plummer, likewise, started a full 16 games as well and attempted 456 passes while throwing 7 interceptions. Comparing Plummer's 2005 season to his previous body of work, he was able to cut out a bit over 61% of his interceptions.
Looking towards their offensive production in regards to points, the point could be made that both quarterbacks struggled to get the ball into the end zone. Smith threw only 17 passes for touchdowns during the 2011 season. In similar fashion, Jake Plummer's 2005 season saw him acquiring only 18 touchdowns.
Smith finished the 2011 regular season with a career high completion percentage of 61.3%, while Plummer's 2005 landed him at a better than his normal 60.7%. For both Quarterbacks this was around 3-4% higher than their previous career average, but nothing they hadn't been close to accomplishing previously.
While I wouldn't want to say that using quarterback ratings is an accurate way to compare two different quarterbacks, because I believe that subject has been laid to rest, I will bring up how uncannily close both Alex Smith's 2011 season quarterback rating was to Jake Plummer's rating in 2005. 0.5. In the last 32 years, only ten other quarterbacks have finished a season +/- 0.5 points away from Alex Smith's 2011 quarterback rating of 90.7. Though, if you actually look at the names you'll see exactly why the statistic shouldn't really count for too terribly much (whenever the short list of names is putting Jake Plummer and Alex Smith next to Drew Brees, Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, Dan Fouts and Ron Jaworski; you're doing a bad job if you're trusting it.)
Both quarterbacks took their teams to a 13-3 record, and then lost in their conference championship game to the eventual super bowl champs. Both teams relied on the run, with Denver having nearly two 1,000 yard rushers that season in Mike Anderson and Tatum Bell, while San Francisco relied a little more heavily on Frank Gore for their running game. The defenses both performed well in their respective seasons, with the edge obviously going to the 49ers who lead the league in more than a few categories. The case could be made that both quarterbacks were given the keys to a sports car and told to just not crash it.
When I stumbled into Jake Plummer's 2005 season, I was hoping it would give me some clarity on what we might expect from Alex moving forward. They really did have more than a couple similarities between the two teams and their two seasons. Unfortunately, I'm walking away now feeling like the likelihood of the comparisons continuing is smaller than the chance they'd have such similar seasons in the first place.
Here's what needs to happen for Alex Smith to continue following in Jake Plummer's shoes:
His completion percentage needs to dip about 5%
He need's to throw about 1/3 less yards per game.
Interceptions will need to come more frequently than touchdowns.
He will need to lose his starting job to Jay Cutler, but the Jay Cutler from before we knew he was a five-year-old.
Is it possible? Absolutely. Is it going to happen? Not like that, at least. Alex is coming into his first season where the team will probably run the same offense they ran the least season; for the entire season. He's also coming into a situation where they've made some moves to get him more than two options when passing the ball, and might make another one in the draft. Plummer, on the other hand, was coming into the age that would eventually lose Mike Shanahan his job in Denver, and his fourth consecutive season with the same head coach and offensive coordinator (Gary Kubiak).
Oh, and maybe the most important difference of all: Alex is going to be 28 with only two full seasons under his belt while Plummer was 32 with five seasons having started 16 games. Alex can still prove nobody knows what they're talking about when they call him a bust, while Plummer was already the known quantity there to keep the seat warm until Jay Cutler was ready to take over.
The Point (for real this time)
Alex Smith is treading unknown water right now, and could either become something great, something good, something alright, something bad, or something terrible. There might be a way to predict which way it's going to turn out, but you're probably not going to find it trying to compare his 2011 season to anything.