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Frank Gore has been a consistent presence in San Francisco with Alex Smith.
It’s certainly true that Smith didn’t enter the best of situations. The 49ers were a two-win team, and the talent was obviously a bit depleted. This is true for most quarterbacks taken early in the first round.
Of course, Andrew Luck didn’t use that excuse, and neither did Robert Griffin III. They didn’t need to use that excuse. Saying the talent was worse is obvious, but saying that’s why Smith didn’t perform is an entirely different statement.
It’s only logical that the 49ers would throw more passes if the talent was better around him. Except that’s not the case.
Smith averaged 30.3 attempts per start for his first five seasons and 26.3 attempts per start in his last two years. By comparison, Colin Kaepernick attempted 31.4 passes per start in 2012.
If Smith’s receivers got better, why wouldn’t he throw more passes? If Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree had to mature under Harbaugh, how come Smith wasn’t allowed to throw more passes once that happened?
The one explanation could be Frank Gore.
Gore has been pretty much the same guy since 2006. He missed 10 games in a five-year span. Just two games per year, if you don’t count his rookie year. Gore was actually more productive in those years than the last two years on a per-carry basis. Gore averaged 4.7 yards per carry from 2005-2010 and 4.5 yards per carry the last two years. The only significant difference is that Gore is getting more carries now.
Maybe Gore is getting more carries because the receivers are actually worse? Not likely. Gore’s running can be directly related to having more leads at the end of the game. The receivers weren’t worse, but they also weren’t a lot better.
In 2006, Smith’s top receiver was Antonio Bryant. He had over 1,000 yards the year prior to coming to the 49ers and over 1,200 the year after leaving. Bryant had only 733 yards in 14 games with the 49ers. Bryant’s quarterbacks before and after leaving Smith were Trent Dilfer, Brian Griese, Jeff Garcia and Charlie Frye.
Fast-forward to 2011. Smith’s top three receivers are Crabtree, Davis and Kyle Williams; they combine for 1,907 yards. Bryant, Arnaz Battle and Gore combined for 1,904 yards in 2006. It seems that the talent around him produced at a pretty similar rate in the passing game in 2006 and 2011—the only two years Smith has started all 16 games.
Talent around him or not, Smith lost a QB competition to Shaun Hill and J.T. O'Sullivan. Smith was also benched in favor of Shaun Hill and Troy Smith at various points. Smith was about to be benched in favor of Trent Dilfer in 2007 when he had a passer rating of 57.2 through seven games, but he got hurt.
Smith won 38 percent of his starts from 2005-2010. The other quarterbacks: Shaun Hill, Trent Dilfer, J.T. O’Sullivan, Tim Rattay, Ken Dorsey, Chris Weinke and Troy Smith combined to win 39 percent of their starts.
Smith might not be bad, but he’s not going to raise the level of play of the players around him, either.