The NFL can be cruel. Alex Smith and Joe Flacco will be sitting at home this week wondering what went wrong. Special teams forfeited their opportunity to play in a Super Bowl, and because of that, no one will talk about their play.
Yet nobody gives conservative quarterbacks or "game managers" credit.
Smith and Flacco are not the first quarterbacks in NFL history to be asked not to screw up and let their defense do the job. Mark Sanchez, Tim Tebow and even Tony Romo have all been protected this season by their head coaches and offensive coordinators from their own demise.
The problem with Sanchez, Tebow and Romo is that even when they're protected for the majority of the game, they still make boneheaded plays. I don't think I need to explain that to fans of the New York Jets or Dallas Cowboys.
Smith and the San Francisco 49ers offense did not play well at all in the NFC Championship. Aside from the two big plays to Vernon Davis, their offense remained overwhelmingly stagnant.
Smith threw 26 passes in just over 67 minutes of play. He completed just 46.2 percent of them and had two touchdowns, zero interceptions and 42 rushing yards. Except when this game is remembered by San Francisco fans 10 years from now, Kyle Williams will be the one remembered, not Smith.
However, the 'Niners only had one 3rd down completion out of 13 attempts. That's what cost San Francisco the game, not Williams' misfortune or Smith's quarterbacking (or lack thereof).
You can blame the conditions for Smith's stale play, but Eli Manning threw the ball 58 times in the same monsoon-like weather. What Smith did right was he didn't give the game away with an inerrant throw and he used his legs adequately when needed.
Smith only threw five interceptions during the regular season and zero interceptions in the playoffs.
Now, do not confuse this argument for being an argument stating that Smith and other conservative quarterbacks alike—past and present—should be placed in the same sentence as Tom Brady, Eli Manning or Aaron Rodgers. They're not that good, but they're effective.
What I am saying, though, is that when quarterbacks who are largely conservative with their play are called upon to drive their team down the field, they can do just that.
When you have a defense as impenetrable as the 49ers or the Baltimore Ravens, you don't need a world-beater behind center. Teams like Baltimore and San Francisco have invested immensely in their defense, and they know that they cannot spend the money on a top-tier quarterback, but you still need a guy capable of winning big games.
Smith did it—twice—against the New Orleans Saints in the final four minutes of their Wild Card matchup. Flacco did it against the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship.
Flacco proved earlier in the season on the road against the Pittsburgh Steelers that he was capable of orchestrating a game-ending drive. With 2:17 left, Flacco drove the Ravens 92 yards in 12 plays to get the game-winning touchdown with eight second remaining.
In the AFC Championship, Flacco proved again that he could step up when needed.
He managed the clock perfectly. He drove the Ravens from their own 30-yard line all the way down to the Patriots' 10-yard line. If it weren't for Lee Evans' blasé attempt at a catch in the end zone with two hands wrapped around the ball, Flacco would be in the limelight this week for his heroics as Baltimore prepares for the Super Bowl.
Or if Billy Cundiff did his job.
It's pretty easy to argue against having a conservative quarterback if your goal is to ultimately win a Super Bowl (which is every team's goal). The majority of GMs, head coaches and fans would chose to have a Phillip Rivers versus a Mark Sanchez.
The NFL is a quarterback and head coach league. All you have to do is look at the past decade of Super Bowl participants to support your argument.
The last 10 Super Bowl quarterbacks are as follows:
|Super Bowl ||Winning Quarterback||Losing Quarterback|
|XLV||Aaron Rodgers||Ben Roethlisberger|
|XLIV||Drew Brees||Peyton Manning|
|XLIII||Ben Roethlisberger||Kurt Warner|
|XLII||Eli Manning||Tom Brady|
|XLI||Peyton Manning||Rex Grossman|
|XL||Ben Roethlisberger||Matt Hasselbeck|
|XXXIX||Tom Brady||Donovan McNabb|
|XXXVIII||Tom Brady||Jake Delhomme|
|XXXVII||Brad Johnson||Rich Gannon|
|XXXVI||Tom Brady||Kurt Warner|
In that list only Grossman, Delhomme, Johnson and maybe Hasselbeck wouldn't be considered conservative. So, when you hear the argument that you have to have a top-tier guy behind center, you can see why.
Out of 20 quarterbacks to make the last 10 Super Bowls, only four would be considered conservative, of which only one of them came out victorious.
However, the NFL is an ever-changing league. Today's defenses are not all like Baltimore or San Francisco. The majority resemble the New England Patriots defense.
The environment for conservative quarterbacks to succeed is as rich as ever. League rules have made it easier for the second or third tier guys to put up 300-yard passing games with more consistency and bigger numbers overall.
Look at Cam Newton. He's a rookie, yet he still put up 4,000-plus yards through the air. Now, Newton's certainly not conservative, but 10 years ago, a rookie would've never put up even close to 4,051 yards passing.
Smith, Flacco, Sanchez and Romo are all capable of winning in today's NFL and taking their team to a Super Bowl. Smith and Flacco should be given credit for putting their teams in a position to play on the NFL's biggest stage during their playoff run.
The talent and ability is there. We won't see the last from these quarterbacks or other conservative quarterbacks in the future.
After all, history tells us they can make it to the Super Bowl and sometimes win it. So why not give them a little credit?
Justin Sparks is a NFL Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report @JustinSparks22