Certain games serve as pivot points for an entire organization, and the front office of the San Francisco 49ers know that Sunday’s 21-19 loss in Arizona is worth a meeting to assess.
In other words, this game more than others calls for some deep thinking and long-term planning. What kind of team are the 49ers now and what kind will they become mid-2012? But that question cannot be answered unless you consider the rest of the NFC West, and there’s no doubt that the Cardinals in Arizona were much, much better than they were when they played in Candlestick Park in November.
Meanwhile, up in Seattle, the Seahawks have quietly won four of their last five and head into Chicago this weekend. It could very well be five of six come Sunday evening. The contrarian in all this is St. Louis, which is sinking like a rock. The bad offensive line, the injury to quarterback Sam Bradford and the poor receiving corps comprise a Rams team that is woefully lacking.
And yet the 21-19 loss stands out in that the Niner front office and coaching staff has to begin to weigh the Who Stays, Who Goes questions. No position is more important than quarterback, and thus when it comes to weighing the pros and cons of whether to sign Smith to a contract extension, you’re really asking much more than who is the starting QB for the next few years. Here’s why.
He’s completing 61.7 percent of his passes, the best mark of his career. His rating of 91.7 is also his best. These two stats speak to the way Smith has been able to maximize his strengths, namely getting the ball off quickly and accurately on short-to-medium throws. He’s never looked better.
However, that also plays into the problem that the 49ers haven’t been able to completely solve. Theirs is an offense with a power running game that seems most effective between the tackles to go along with a short passing game. There’s no vertical in the game, and thus defenses pack 11 players very close to the line of scrimmage.
That’s one reason why the Niners are near dead-last in third down conversions at only 29 percent (only the Rams are worst at 28 percent), and why they are the worst in scoring TDs in the red zone (29 percent). The offense constantly has to play against defenses that look like a subway platform at rush hour.
Yet, at 2,565, Smith is 18th best in yards gained, 10th in completion percentage (61.2) but 27th in yards per game (197.3). His 15-5 TD-Int ratio is awesome because Smith is the least intercepted QB in the game. He’s also been the most sacked at 39.
Had Smith been able to maneuver the 49ers into field goal range to pull out a victory over the Cardinals, his doubters around the league would have had to put away their criticism for a long, long time. Nonetheless, the 49ers have other issues right now to suggest that Smith is more of a help than a drag when it comes to elevating the team into one of the NFL’s elite.
The weakest part of Smith’s game is obvious: He’s not great on downfield throws. To the credit of the coaching staff, Smith hasn’t had to throw downfield all that much except by choice.
The Niners have 33 pass plays longer than 20 yards, ranking them 19th. But there are only a handful of plays where the ball stayed in the air longer than 20 yards—Michael Crabtree’s 52-yard TD against the Rams and Delanie Walker’s 29-yard score against Tampa Bay being the most prominent.
The offense needs more explosiveness, to be sure. But getting a speedster to run deep isn’t necessarily the answer. Smith’s throw to Ted Ginn Jr. against Baltimore proved he can throw deep when given the time, and Ginn proved he’s capable of making defenses pay when does catch the ball when well down the field.
One reason why the Niners don’t do more of that is that 39 number—sacks, which the Niners are atop the league in allowing. A drop-back, hold-it-while the receivers get deep quarterback, a la Aaron Rogers, doesn’t do well with the Niner offensive line.
When a team like the 49ers have such luxury in a young, talented front seven, keeping it together is paramount—at least as far as market forces and free agency will allow. And when you do have such a stout defense, it becomes paramount that you let the defense play to its strengths, which is time.
That means let the defense make its plays. And the Niners do. They lead the league in turnovers with 31. No one, it seems, will beat them on the ground, and to the 49er defense’s credit it took amazing plays by Larry Fitzgerald last week to beat them.
On offense, San Francisco has 15 run plays over 20 yards, four over 40, which ties them with three other teams for league-best. Despite their poor passing game, they’re still 12th in points with 24 a game.
This goes back to that “game manager” term so despised by Smith and others. But what it really says, and what has been very good about, is not trying to do too much by forcing throws that turn into interceptions and taking care of the ball when the defense gets to him in the pocket.
It’s a defense that keeps things close; that means a quarterback who does enough to score will do just fine. Smith is a very good example of that kind of quarterback.
There’s no doubt that the 49ers have a Super Bowl-capable defense. And if traded this defense with Green Bay’s, San Francisco would be 5-8 (or very similar to what they were last year) and the Packers would be building a new wing to add to the four or five additional Lombardi Trophies they’d be gaining in the future.
In other words, if the 49er offense was better the team would be a major threat to win it all, Green Bay, New Orleans, Baltimore and anyone else be damned.
But it’s not Smith’s fault. Criticize the offensive line for not being better in pass protection. Criticize Joe Staley for getting dinged and thus missing about 98 percent of the Cardinal game last week. Blame offensive coordinator Greg Roman for not making the right calls at the right time.
Smith isn’t the issue; finding the right combination of plays and good blocking up front will do a great deal in making the scoreboard light up more frequently.
With Smith, they have a quarterback who knows the system, the players and the league. That’s one thing you cannot say about Colin Kaepernick; just being able to see the blitzes and complete passes against extra rushers, at which Smith excels, proves that Smith is the best player on the squad to lead the team.
But what about next year? What possible free agent or draft pick could come in and do a better job against NFL defenses? There isn’t one.
What’s more, what possible free agent wide receiver will be available that will guarantee an automatic dispersal of defensive players from the line of scrimmage? Victor Jackson of the Chargers? DeSean Jackson of the Eagles?
I have a feeling that Trent Baalke doesn’t think that way. Adding a $15 million-a-year contract goes against the overall team-first philosophy. If anyone deserved a major raise, it was Frank Gore, and yet he received a three-year, $13 million deal, hardly ostentatious.
No, instead of spending too much on one or two stars, this team will build judiciously through the draft, paying well but not exorbitantly for starters and high for backups and key special teams players. The best teams that last are built through the draft with key additions coming through free agency.
And in that area, the one lacking area has been Braylon Edwards. Injuries have kept him from being 100 percent. If he were healthier, perhaps the Niners would have scored a TD instead of a David Akers field goal and thus prevailed against the Cardinals.
But they didn’t, but it wasn’t Alex Smith’s fault.
He’s only 27 and he knows the league and the team. He’s worth three more years at $10 million per.