Taking up for the “game manager” Alex Smith (again)

Happy Friday, friends.  For years, even when it seemed like I was the only guy out in the wilderness, I’ve maintained that Alex Smith can play QB well enough to win a Super Bowl.

The last two seasons, as he’s had some consistency in coaching for the first time in his career, he’s looked a lot like I was right.  Now, all of a sudden, after his only bad game in two seasons last week, and one ill-advised throw last night, people are starting to say it’s time to dump him in favor of Colin Kaepernick.

It’s a bye week for the Broncos, so I just decided to run with this topic, because I think it’s absurd.  If you watched the game between Seattle and San Francisco last night, I’d question your grasp on reality if your takeaway was that Smith struggled.  If you didn’t see the game, and you just looked at the numbers- sure, they’re pretty average looking.

The eye test, though, showed that Smith’s receivers continually got defeated on the outside by the excellent Seattle corners, and that Smith played a game in which discretion was often the better part of valor.  The 49ers wideouts aren’t too good, and that’s no news flash, but Vernon Davis was held without even a target, while playing all 60 snaps, and going into the pattern 24 times.

The Seahawks were awesome in pass defense, and in the first half, Smith had nowhere to go with the ball, so he frequently just threw it away.  That’s Jim Harbaugh football, and you can’t blame Smith for doing what he was coached to do.

In the second half, the 49ers made a point of taking checkdowns, and that helped them start moving the ball.  They also started using Michael Crabtree in the slot, and that got him away from Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman on the outside, and freed him up a bit underneath.

That, in turn, helped Frank Gore get it going in the run game, and suddenly you saw 49ers offensive football in the second half of the game.  The interception that Smith threw in the Seattle end zone was a bad decision, and a good play by Browner to close the underneath throwing lane in zone defense.  Every QB makes a mistake sometimes, even the great ones.

Smith isn’t a great one, but he’s a very solid player.  When his receivers get open, he hits them.  When nothing is there, he typically takes a sack or throws the ball away.  Last night, he took two sacks for two yards, while trying to escape the pocket in the face of excellent coverage.  In the 49ers way of thinking, these aren’t bad plays.  They’re very confident in their defense, and they’re willing to punt and play for field position.

At halftime last night, dumbass Mike Florio was tweeting about how the 49ers should give Kaepernick the chance to “breathe life” into the offense.  This morning, Mike Sando (the NFC West’s answer to Pork Chop Williamson) was double-penalizing Smith for having thrown four picks in two weeks.

Last week, he had three picks (while playing from way behind) and that was troubling, and we beat him up for it.  Thursday night he had one, but did you realize that that’s four in two games?  ZOMG!

Sando seems to think that some kind of new knowledge was gained from two games.  I think that’s completely silly.  It’s hard to play QB when you’re down a few scores in the second half, and that’s what happened against the Giants.  We learned that Smith isn’t Peyton Manning – shocker! 

Last night, the 49ers stayed in the game, and figured out how to move the ball some through the air, despite the lack of production from outside WRs.  It was actually a lot like one of their games from last season.  Smith managed the game, and helped his team win it.

And that brings me to the “game manager” concept, which I think is stupid.  Anytime I’ve ever written something complimentary of Smith, I get a bunch of comments saying “he’s a game manager,” like that’s a bad thing.

Do you know who the best game managers in the NFL are?  Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.  Before Josh McDaniels went all newfangled with his offensive scheme in 2007, in conjunction with the acquisitions of Randy Moss and Wes Welker, Brady never had particularly big numbers.

Manning was the guy with the stats, but Brady was the guy with the rings - the quintessential game manager, who protected the football and got his team into the right play.  It’s easy to forget, after he started putting up huge numbers too, but that used to be the narrative around Brady.  He was the dude who “just won games.”

Look at Brady’s stats before 2007, and tell me that they were anything special.  Those were the years that he won his Super Bowls – when the Patriots relied a lot on their defense and running game, and Brady orchestrated the offense, and took what the defense gave him.

Smith’s Approximate Value (a PFR metric) in 2011 was 13.  That was better than Brady’s AV in his first Super Bowl season, the same as in his second, and three points lower than in Brady’s third. 

I’m not saying that Smith is as good as Brady, although if he had comparable weapons, the difference in productivity wouldn’t be nearly as great as people think.  I am saying that if Smith can play as well as he did last year, and in a similar manner, history suggests that the 49ers can win the Super Bowl with that kind of QB production.

Being a good game manager is a positive thing.  It means protecting the football, it means checking out of bad plays, and it means taking what the defense gives you.  It doesn’t mean having less skill than Peyton Manning.  If he’s the measure for whether your QB is good enough, then practically nobody else’s QB  is good enough. 

If I can’t have a top-of-the-league guy like Peyton, and I have to have somebody from the middle 20 QBs in the NFL, I’d rather have somebody with good game management ability than somebody who can throw it a little harder, but turns it over a lot.  But on TV, you hear this stuff about “game managers” as if that’s a pejorative.  The commenters I see, every time I write about Alex Smith, just echo that nonsense.

If you drop the Giants game as an obvious outlier, Smith is playing as well as, if not better than last season.  Yeah, he struggled last week, but so did the 49ers offensive line and defense.  It was an aberration all the way around, and no long-term decisions should be made on it.  There’s no need to make a change to something that is working as planned.

As for Kaepernick, I liked him coming out of Nevada, and I still think he’s an interesting player.  I think he’s basically a faster, right-handed throwing Tebow, though, and that shifting from Smith to Kaepernick on a full-time basis would subtract a great deal of football intelligence and poise from the offense, and only add faster feet.  It’s a bad near-term trade, and the long-term benefit would have to be massive and obvious to do it.

I like how the 49ers are using Kaepernick, and I think it’s appropriate for a team with Super Bowl aspirations.  Throwing him into the starting role now, though, and benching Smith, is tantamount to giving up on those aspirations in 2012.  The only reason you’d do that is if you think that you have no chance to accomplish that goal with Smith. 

I’m here to tell you, that’s not the case – San Francisco is the same threat they’ve always been to win it all this year.  If they do, Smith will play a big part in it, in a total team sense – comparable to Brady’s role in the Patriots’ three SB wins.  The victory won’t be in spite of him, regardless of what the below-average Florio or Sando would have you believe.

1.  I’m not in the arguing business, I’m in the saying what I think business.
2.  I get my information from my eyes.

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