Regardless of the tough loss in the NFC Championship Game, the San Francisco 49ers far exceeded expectations in the 2011 season. It is time to reflect on one of the biggest contributing factors in the turnaround: renaissance of Alex Smith.
There is no doubt that he stunk in the NFC Championship Game where he only threw for 196 yards and was an awful 1-for-13 on third down. The 49ers did not convert a third down until the last desperate heave of regulation to Delanie Walker and couldn’t manage much offense in overtime. Although Kyle Williams is the player that everyone is focusing on in the loss, Smith would have been the goat if it hadn’t been for Williams’ two fumbles.
However, it is rare for a player to struggle so much in the first six seasons of his career to suddenly be relevant again. I have not been much of an Alex Smith supporter in recent years, and his dreadful performance in the NFC Championship Game is giving me pause about his future, but there is no doubt he had a great season overall.
For the record, I don’t think that Smith is an elite NFL quarterback and never will be, but he is the right guy in San Francisco for the moment or until someone like a healthy Peyton Manning becomes available.
Alex Smith’s resurgence this season got me thinking about how his 2011 compares to the other No. 1 overall selections over the last decade or so. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that Smith did not do too bad in comparison to his brothers in the fraternity of No. 1 picks.
For fun, I’ve also looked at some notable players (mostly quarterbacks) from each of the drafts in the last ten years.
Cam Newton had an excellent rookie year, although he came down to earth a little in the last quarter of the season. Newton finished the season with 4,051 passing yards, 706 rushing yards and 35 total touchdowns.
Newton threw 17 interceptions, which isn’t a good ratio to his passing touchdowns (21), but it is better than a 2-to-1 ratio with total touchdowns. In comparison to Smith, Newton has the potential to develop into a much better playmaker, and Newton already has more 300-yard passing games (three) than Smith has in his entire career (two).
Right now, Smith’s a better decision maker, which is one of the most important parts of the position, but Newton will likely have the better career.
2011 Grade: B-.
If the 2011 NFL draft was held again, Dalton may have gone as high as No. 3 to the Buffalo Bills. However, Dalton went in the second round because of questions about his arm strength. That arm produced 3,398 yards passing, 20 touchdowns, only 13 interceptions, and a playoff birth.
Dalton looks like he may have more upside than Newton, but, because of his athletic ability, Newton still probably should have been the first overall pick. Dalton struggled against the 49ers in Week 3, losing 13-8, but has given the Bengals what they wanted and more.
2011 Grade: B+.
Sam Bradford had a terrible sophomore slump, throwing for only 2,164 passing yards in an injury-plagued season. In Bradford’s defense, his team struggled with injuries as well, but to only have six touchdown passes in 10 games just doesn’t cut it.
The only win that Bradford was responsible for was an ugly 13-12 win in Week 10 against the Cleveland Browns, where the Browns lost primarily because of a bad snap. In the Rams only good win of the year, against the Saints in Week 8, Bradford was sidelined with injury.
Alex Smith’s numbers are not great, but his offense moved the ball, unlike Bradford’s.
2011 Grade: D.
It was tempting to go with a player that, in all likelihood, will have a more prolific NFL career like Ndamukong Suh, Rob Gronkowski, or Maurkice Pouncey, but Tim Tebow has certainly been the most interesting story in the 2011 NFL season.
Tebow’s passing numbers and completion percentage are atrocious, but he managed to win both regular season and playoff games this year so he has done better than many first-round picks.
However, Tebow will never be consistent enough to go more than about 10-6 during the regular season, which means that he will always have to win four playoff games to win a championship. That isn’t ever going to happen. Members of the church of Tebow may bash me below.
2011 Grade: C+.
Matthew Stafford performed reasonably well in his first playoff performance, throwing for 380 yards, three touchdowns, and two interceptions in the loss to the Saints. In his first season as a healthy player, Stafford put up MVP-type numbers in the regular season: 5,038 yards, 41 touchdowns, and only 16 interceptions.
However, in Week 6 against San Francisco he only had an 86.5 passer rating in the 25-19 loss. His numbers are better than Alex Smith’s, but Stafford did not beat a playoff team all season with the exception of the Denver Broncos.
2011 Grade: B+.
Believe it or not, statistically Mark Sanchez had the best year of his career: 3,474 yards, 26 touchdowns, 18 interceptions and a 78.2 passer rating. Inevitably, any team that has a coach with the last name of Ryan seems to be doomed to failure.
The Jets were a train wreck, but Sanchez’s problems may stem from his former offensive coordinator: the conservative-minded Brian Schottenheimer (another coaching name that doesn’t live up to expectations).
I think that Sanchez could win with the right head coach/offensive coordinator combo, but it is not in place right now. I’ll take Alex Smith’s 13-3 record with team unity versus the Big Apple dumpster fire any day.
2011 Grade: C-
There are not many stats to measure the effectiveness of offensive linemen with the exception of one: Pro Bowls. In Pro Bowl voting, most fans don’t even pay attention to their own offensive linemen, let alone the elite in the league.
This year, despite some injuries, Jake Long was voted the Pro Bowl starter by players, coaches, and fans. If the picture on TV of Sun Life Stadium is an indication, Dolphin fans don’t go to games so they probably don’t vote for the Pro Bowl, either.
That means Long made it on his reputation with colleagues. To me, that makes him an elite player at one of the most important positions in the game. The only thing keeping him from a perfect grade is missing a couple of games.
2011 Grade: A-.
Despite Jake Long’s effectiveness, I am willing to bet that the Dolphins wish they had drafted Matt Ryan or Joe Flacco first overall. I picked Ryan here because I think his team depends on him a little more than the Ravens do on Flacco.
On Wild Card Sunday Ryan and his offense were terrible, especially in short yardage. If Matt Ryan played in a city with more passionate fans like New York, Dallas, or Oakland, he would be labeled as a big-game bust.
Ryan is 0-3 in the playoffs, and in each playoff game his team had the better record than their opponent. Granted, two of those games were on the road, but he has not performed well in any of his postseason starts.
2011 Grade: B-.
Russel ate himself right out of the league
It is hard for me to say nice things about the Raiders, but in their defense they needed a quarterback in this quarterback-weak draft. However, there were much better pros in the 2007 draft such as Patrick Willis, Adrian Peterson, and Calvin Johnson.
JaMarcus Russell should serve as a warning to anyone drafting a quarterback that the biggest red flag for draftee is a bad work ethic. Russell is second only to Ryan Leaf as a draft bust, and that is only because Leaf had more hype going into the league.
2011 Grade: F.
When Kevin Kolb was traded to the Arizona Cardinals this year I really thought that it meant the San Francisco 49ers had no shot at winning the division. After all, San Francisco at the beginning of 2011 looked to have the third best quarterback in the division.
Both Kolb and Sam Bradford had disappointing, injury-plagued seasons. Kolb only played in nine games and had a passer rating of 81.9—much less than the Cardinals expected from him when they signed him to a five-year contract with $21 million guaranteed.
2011 Grade: D.
Remember when most of us thought that the Texans were nuts to draft Mario Williams ahead of Reggie Bush? Of the two, Williams has had the better career thus far despite Bush’s resurgence with the Dolphins.
Unfortunately for Williams, he only played in five games because of a torn pectoral muscle. Before his injury, Williams had 10 tackles and five sacks in five games, which projects to 32 tackles and 16 sacks on the year—a very nice campaign. But, you can’t get good grades without playing in the games.
2011 Grade: C-.
It was a difficult 2011 for this trio of first-round picks from the 2006 draft. Vince Young and Matt Leinart were backups this year and Leinart only got in a half of football before breaking his collarbone.
Vince Young was not real great in relief of Michael Vick, where he threw for four touchdowns and nine interceptions in three starts and some fill-in duty. Jay Cutler had the Bears rolling pretty well before sustaining a season-ending injury to his right thumb.
When one considers that Tavaris Jackson, Charlie Whitehurst, and Bruce Gradkowski were in this draft class, it might be fair to say that the 2006 quarterbacks are cursed.
Group Grade: D.
Alex Smith had a great season in 2011 where he threw for 3,144 yards and had a 3.4-to-1 TD-to-INT ratio, making it the best year of his career by far. But, the offseason is going to be a test of his mental toughness.
He has until next summer to think about how bad his offense stunk in the NFC Championship Game and how a lot of it was his fault. If he can use 2011 as motivation for getting better, we could see a very solid quarterback emerging in San Francisco.
However, if Smith’s psyche is delicate, the 49ers may be looking at between three to five more losses in 2012.
Aaron Rodgers waited around until pick No. 24 to be drafted by the Green Bay Packers in 2005. All he did in the 2011 regular season was have MVP numbers: 4,643 passing yards, 45 passing TDs, and a 122.5 QB rating in 15 games.
However, he and Packer fans will remember 2011 as a disappointing year because the team simply didn’t show up in the playoffs against the Giants. Rodgers wasn’t helped in that game by the eight dropped balls from his receiving corps, but he was a little off as well.
Next year, don’t expect the Packers to take the foot off the gas if they get everything wrapped up early.
Eli Manning made it clear before Draft Day in 2004 that he was not going to the San Diego Chargers. The trade San Diego made with New York worked out for both franchises pretty well, but Manning is the main reason that the Giants are in the Super Bowl.
He had a great regular season (4,933 passing yards and 29 TDs), but has been wonderful in the playoffs. If he and the Giants beat New England on February 4, I think we will all be forced to call Eli the better Manning. He has eight touchdowns to only one interception in the playoffs this year and has made big throws when it counts. Also, he is 7-3 lifetime in the playoffs.
It was tempting to go with Phillip Rivers here because he was traded for Manning, but since Roethlisberger went to the playoffs in 2011 we’ll focus on the Pittsburgh Steeler.
Roethlisberger’s season statistics were not earth-shattering, but they are as good as ever: 4,077 passing yards, 21 TDs and 14 INTs. He played well in the playoff loss to Denver, but not as well as he needed to because of his ankle.
His injury was mishandled by the organization; first in the offseason when the Steelers did not acquire a reliable backup and by the coaching staff for not sitting him for the rest of the season after the first half of the Monday Night Game against San Francisco.
When Carson Palmer was acquired on October 18 to fill the void left by the injured Jason Campbell, the Raider Nation was sharpening their costumes and buying mascara for game day.
In all the excitement, the scouting department for the Raiders failed to watch the game tape on Palmer in the last couple of years to see the declining skill set. Palmer threw 16 interceptions in 10 games and led a 7-4 team to a final record of 8-8.
Darren McFadden’s injury had a little to do with it, but if the franchise is going to give up a first- and second-round pick for a player, he better be able to carry a team.
When Rex Grossman was selected 22nd overall by the Chicago Bears in the 2003 draft, the Bears were hoping that they had finally found the reliable quarterback that they had not had since Jim McMahon.
The Bears didn't get reliability out of Grossman, although he did lead them to a Super Bowl. The Redskins didn't get reliability out of Grossman, either.
Grossman threw the usual 20 interceptions en route to another mediocre season in D.C. The thing that must infuriate Redskins’ fans the most is that Grossman can be really good at times, but he has never been consistent.
2011 Grade: D+.
Many of you may say to yourself, “Is David Carr still in football?” The answer is “yes” because he went back to the New York Giants and has spent 2011 as the backup to Eli Manning.
David Carr really never had a chance in the NFL after being drafted by the Houston Texans. The Texans never made the offensive line a priority and Carr paid the price by setting sack records in his first two seasons.
He has bounced around since. The only thing that I love David Carr for is that he beat the Dallas Cowboys in the first game in Texans’ history, 19-10.
2011 Grade: F.
Both Josh McCown and David Garrard have had moments of NFL success in their careers, with Garrard being the better of the two. However, neither quarterback has excelled much past mediocre or average this season.
Garrard didn’t play a snap after the preseason because of back surgery, and McCown only played in three games for the Bears and threw for 414 total yards. McCown was in a difficult spot to begin with because the Bears went into hibernation after the injuries to Jay Cutler and Matt Forte.
2011 Grade: D-.
This is the Michael Vick we are going to see for the rest of his career: A spectacular playmaker that is inconsistent and injury-prone. I would be surprised if Vick plays more than 12 games in a season from here on out.
First of all, he is tiny for a quarterback (6") and he flat-out refuses to learn how to slide.
When Vick wasn’t hurt, he was good. He threw for 3,303 passing yards and rushed for 589 more. But, if he does not learn how to avoid hits his career is not going to last much longer. And, since he lost to Alex Smith and the 49ers in Week 4, his grade gets knocked down a little.
2011 Grade: B-.
Drew Brees’ numbers were spectacular in 2011 where he broke Dan Marino’s long-standing season passing record of 5,084 yards. He was spectacular against the Detroit Lions on Wildcard Weekend and very good against the 49ers in the Divisional playoffs, going for 462 yards and 4 touchdowns.
The two interceptions really hurt the Saints in the 49er game as well as the Saints’ three fumbles. Brees should get some MVP votes for his 2011 season, but he and the Saints either have to learn to win on the road or get home-field advantage throughout the playoffs if they are going to bring another title back to the Crescent City.