Why Alex Smith Is Not a Super Bowl Caliber Quarterback

Andy Bensch@@AndyBenschSenior Writer IDecember 28, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO - NOVEMBER 29:  Alex Smith #11 of the San Francisco 49ers drops back to pass during their game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Candlestick Park on November 29, 2009 in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

"And Young is back to throw, he's going deep for Jerry, he caught it! He's gone! Touchdown 49ers!! After just a minute and 24 seconds, touchdown pass to Jerry Rice!"

More or less, those are the words of former long-time voice of the 49ers, Joe Starkey, as he called Steve Young's opening touchdown pass to Jerry Rice in Super Bowl XXIX.

Young was perfect in that game, throwing for a record six touchdown passes on the game's biggest stage.

What did Alex Smith do yesterday against a 2-12 Lions team? His lone touchdown pass came on a play where he shouldn't have even thrown the ball.

While the quarterbacking statistics look more than solid from the current 49er QB yesterday: 20-31 passing for 230 yards, one touchdown, and zero interceptions for a passer rating of 97.5, Smith left much to be desired in the hopes of the 49er faithful.

It wasn't just the numerous overthrown balls, under-thrown balls, four tipped balls at the line of scrimmage, but even the plays he was able to complete made you scratch your head and say, "What the hell was that?"

After being named the starter for next season earlier in the week, Smith came out and laid a dud of a performance in the first half against a Detroit Lions team that was ripe for a shellacking by the 49ers offense.

Detroit is ranked dead last in the NFL in both passing yards and passing touchdowns, with 265.4 yards allowed per game and 31 touchdowns allowed through the air.

Yet Smith managed just 230 yards and only a single touchdown pass on a play that he should have run for the touchdown rather than risk the throw? Yiiiiiikes.

Of course, if Smith had just thrown the ball down the Lions' throat and made the big play in the first half, his nearly bone-headed touchdown pass in the second half would have been his second of the game.

After a perfect play fake late in the first quarter, Smith had a streaking Michael Crabtree wide open for what should have been a touchdown. But the 49er quarterback severely under-threw the ball, forcing Crabtree to slow down and adjust to make the catch. Crabtree was then stopped short of the end zone, and the drive ended in a field goal instead of a touchdown.

Fifty yard-passes are nice, but 60-yard touchdowns are better. According to Mark Purdy's article in the San Jose Mercury News today, Smith was apparently afraid of an overthrow, telling Purdy "It's like a layup—you don't want to necessarily make that too difficult on [Crabtree]."

Is this the guy the 49ers want leading their football team? A quarterback who is so worried about an overthrow that he under-throws his receiver on purpose? A quarterback who (to borrow Smith's basketball analogy) would ignore a wide open three-point opportunity to win the game by risking another pass?

As former Jets head coach and current ESPN analyst Herm Edwards says, "You play to win the game. Hello?!? You play to win the game!"

In this instance, how can Smith even contemplate not airing the ball out and attempting to fit it into Crabtree, perfectly in stride? If the ball indeed drops incomplete, what is the problem? You are still playing the Lions, the game is as close to an automatic win that you can get in the NFL (although I say that because I do believe in any given Sunday).

Even when Smith had nothing to lose, he still played it safe. An attribute nobody should want in their starting quarterback.

Now this poor throw on Crabtree's 50-yard gain got me thinking: When have we seen Smith ever hit a receiver perfectly in stride? How many times this season have we seen a receiver not have to adjust his route to make the catch? Not often.

On most of those deep middle passes to Vernon Davis, the 49er tight end has had to slow down and jump up for the ball. The majority of Crabtree's catches have been extremely athletic plays by the rookie; when he snatches the ball either from over his head or way out in front of his body, and Delanie Walker usually has to reach behind him to make the catch.

Smith almost never hits a receiver perfectly in stride, and watching Sunday night football last night made me wish the 49ers had Tony Romo as their quarterback.

Granted, the Dallas Cowboys quarterback has struggled during the postseason so far in his career, but he made one perfect pass last night that made me think, "Wow, that was Steve Young/Joe Montana-like."

In the middle of the second quarter, Romo hit his tight-end Jason Witten about 25 yards down field on a crossing pattern. The safety was right on Witten's heels, but the throw was on the money: a perfect spiral that hit Witten right between eight and two on his jersey, and he didn't have to break stride at all. With such an amazingly accurate throw, Witten was able to scamper another 44 yards down inside the Redskins' five-yard line before being tackled.

While Romo has had his fair share of inconsistencies throughout his career, it is plays like this one that show he has the ability to overcome his mistakes and should eventually enjoy playoff success.

However, with Smith, we very rarely—if ever—see plays of this fashion that make us fans think, "Okay, he can be the guy," and because of that, it has become clear that Smith is not the guy to lead the 49ers to their sixth Super Bowl title.

Am I saying that Smith is terrible? No, I'm not. Could he lead the 49ers to the playoffs? Sure he could, but he won't be able to succeed when he gets there, because he doesn't play at the same speed as everyone else on the field. Five years into his career, and he is still a step behind on almost every throw.

For those of you here on B/R who think I have a vendetta against the 49er quarterback, let me state that I agree with Smith being the quarterback next season. The 49ers have a goal to get back to the playoffs, and Smith gives them the best chance. He is a very capable quarterback.

But to win championships, teams need a quarterback who is more than just "capable." They need a quarterback that is "unstoppable" when he's on his game. Young/Montana/Favre/Elway/Roethlisberger/Manning/Brady/Brees/Warner/McNair/Aikman/Marino/Simms, etc. are all guys who fit this bill.

Over 90 percent of Super Bowl caliber teams have quarterbacks who can beat the best of the best when it matters most. For every Trent Dilfer who wins a Super Bowl, there are at least three other Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks who had the talent to dominate opposing defenses.

Alex Smith doesn't show this ability in the slightest. And I wouldn't have any basis for writing this article if it weren't for his two bone-headed plays on Sunday. The first of which was the aforementioned under-thrown ball to Crabtree, and the second was his lone touchdown to Davis.

After another excellent play fake, Smith had the entire right-half of the end zone wide open to run the ball in for the score. Had he sprinted to the corner right away, he could have walked into the end zone once he reached the goal-line.

However, Smith took an odd circular route to the corner and the linebacker closed in on him. As he approached the corner, Smith still could have scored, albeit with some contact, had he dove into the end zone. But instead, he pulled up short and risked floating a pass to Davis in the back corner for the touchdown.

The stupidity of the play was twofold: Not only did Smith risk another batted ball or incomplete pass that should have been a touchdown, but the replays showed that 99.99 percent of his body was past the line of scrimmage. Detroit challenged the play, and it very easily could have been reversed, but the refs claimed irrefutable evidence (although almost everyone watching thought that it was going to be overturned).

Regardless of the ref's call, it was clear Smith was not thinking about where he was on the field, and that is simply inexcusable. I mean what was going on? Did Smith have Davis on his fantasy team or what? There was no reason to risk a throw when he could have simply run the ball in for the score untouched.

When have you seen any other respectable starting quarterback make as odd looking of a play as that?

The 49ers forced another six turnovers against the Lions on Sunday and the offense managed just 20 points. Two weeks ago against Arizona they forced seven turnovers and the offense managed only 24 points. Good quarterbacks turn these high amount of turnovers into absolute blowout victories for their team.

Smith, on the other hand, led his team to just five touchdown drives in those two games, even with his defense forcing 13 turnovers to his benefit. Not exactly the points of turnovers that one would expect from a good quarterback.

Supporters of the first round pick may once again pull out the five offensive coordinators in five years defense, but not having continuity in the offense doesn't excuse a quarterback from having a poor football mentality.

Five different coordinators in his first five seasons means missing a pass because of miscommunication, not understanding the complexity of certain plays, or not having chemistry with teammates. But it has no effect on a quarterback making the wrong assumption when the right play to make is so incredibly obvious.

If Smith can't impress the fanbase against the Lions, how is he going to impress the fanbase if he ever gets to the playoffs?

The 49ers finally have a quarterback who has the ability to get them to the postseason, but don't bet on them winning if he ever manages to get them there.


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