Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Case for Alex Smith

Why I believe San Francisco 49er Coach Jim Harbaugh made a mistake in benching veteran quarterback Alex Smith.

I’ve been a San Francisco 49ers fan since I first understood what a first down was, roughly about 40 years, so I was one of the tens of thousands of hugely disappointed Northern Californians who watched on February 3rd as my beloved Niners lost their first Super Bowl in 6 appearances. I am also, however, one of a small minority of Niner fans who, despite the obvious flair and powerful throwing arm of Colin Kaepernick, believe that Jim Harbaugh made a mistake in Week 10 when he decided to bench veteran Alex Smith in favor of Kaepernick.

None of us will ever know, of course, whether the 49ers would have won the Super Bowl with Smith at the helm, or even whether they would have made it that far. (The narrative among most fans is that they surely wouldn’t have.) And more than that, I’ll admit that much of my initial ire at Smith’s benching was emotional: a guy who had stuck it out through some of the darkest years in 49er history, who had never asked to be traded as any sane professional would have, and who, when given the chance, had delivered a stellar season and taken the team from the depths of nowhereland to within a breath of the Super Bowl, to me, a guy like that deserved some loyalty in return. But even after Kaepernick attained instant super-stardom through his performance and the team’s continued success, I remain convinced that the team was better with Smith at the helm, and here’s why:

First, the teams I love (and the teams we 49er fans had gotten used to watching over the years) are the ones who are entirely predictable but nonetheless wildly successful. When a fellow Niner fan berates Alex Smith for being “boring,” I say, “Good! Boring is good!” With Smith leading a balanced and nuanced passing attack and the unstoppable running back Frank Gore leading a freight train of a running attack, the 49ers were this kind of offensive team: defensive coordinators knew exactly what they were going to do on the field, and there wasn’t a damn thing they could do about it.

Second, when you’ve got a Super Bowl team, you don’t mess with it. So you’ve got a young talent at a key position on the bench, sure, toss him in now and then to make sure he’s game-ready should the unthinkable happen. But when you’ve made it within a game of the Super Bowl and are charging to the playoffs at 6-2, that is not the time to make dramatic changes like replacing your starting quarterback. Just ask the NFL teams that have never been within a whiff of the Super Bowl: those opportunities are rare indeed, and when you get them, you do not mess with them.

Bryn Swartz of the Bleacher Report captures the moment of Smith’s benching extremely well:
The fascinating aspect is just how well Smith had been playing when he was benched. Let's look at his numbers. He had completed a ridiculous 70.2 percent of his passes, tossing 13 touchdowns and five interceptions. His 104.1 passer rating would be the third-highest mark in the league if he had thrown enough passes to qualify.

In fact, Smith's second-to-last game as the 49ers starter was the best of his career. He completed 18 of 19 passes for 232 yards, three touchdowns and a near-perfect passer rating.
So what, most people say. Smith was great, Kaepernick is greater. Taller, faster, flashier, and able to toss the ball 70 yards from his back foot if he has to. Agreed. He’s an amazing talent and I look forward to years of watching him lead the Niners to many wins in the future, and hopefully back to multiple Super Bowl appearances. But Kaepernick himself isn’t the problem. It’s what Kaepernick, in this particular juncture in his career, did to the team. From Week 10 onwards, the Niners were different. They were no longer running Frank Gore down opponents’ throats until the linebackers and safeties bit, then putting the hammer down with the passing attack. Instead they were a team that was trying so hard to be unpredictable that they were confusing their own offensive linemen, a team that all but abandoned receivers like Vernon Davis, one of the most feared tight ends in the game, a team that, ironically, was becoming even more predictable by relying more and more on a single combination: Kaepernick-to-wide receiver Michael Crabtree. Not being one to simply accept what I was seeing, I decided, like Bryn Swartz, to look at the numbers.


Fortunately, Smith and Kaepernick each started exactly 8 games, so a decent apples-to-apples statistical comparison can be made, starting with the straight-up quarterback passing numbers. Kaepernick and Smith threw the same number of passes, and as I’m sure Harbaugh had hoped, the stronger-armed Kaepernick completed enough long balls that his overall yardage was higher, despite completing fewer passes overall. But as I said, my kind of team is the kind that runs at you with a fierce, predictable, and unstoppable attack. (Think of Joe Montana and the West Coast offense he used for 10 years to the frustration of opponent after opponent.) An offense like that does not, in my opinion, require long bombs to win games—and the fact that Smith won 6 games and Kaepernick only 5 is good evidence of that. So for me, the much more dramatic numbers on this chart are Smith’s superior 70% completion percentage and 104.1 passer rating. To me, this is not a quarterback you put on the bench, and what’s more, doing so for the reasons Harbaugh apparently had in mind changed the team, and not in a good way

Passing        SmithKaepernick


Receiving statistics for the Niners’ top 7 receivers provide the strongest evidence of this. With Smith at the helm, 4 of those receivers pulled down over 200 total yards in receptions. With Kaepernick starting, only 2 did, and that second one was only because of a late-season surge by Delaney Walker. In fact, Kaepernick, as one would completely expect of a young quarterback, locked in on Michael Crabtree and milked that cow right to the end. If I’m an opposing defensive coordinator, you’ve just solved one problem for me: all I have to do is stop Crabtree, and I’ve just taken away 2/3 of the Niner’s passing attack. Admittedly, during the playoffs those defensive coordinators tried to do just that, and Kaepernick responded by going repeatedly to Davis to make up the slack. Still, I think it’s telling that the play that ended the Niners Super Bowl was a fade to the corner of the end zone—a play the Niners had not run successfully all season long—to Michael Crabtree.

Receiving Yards        Smith as StarterKaepernick as Starter


All along you’ve been thinking, all this talk completely ignores one of Kaepernick’s greatest assets, his running ability. Agreed, he is an amazingly fast and dynamic rusher who adds a dimension to the offensive attack that can drive opposing defenses crazy. But at what cost? When I consider this, I always put myself in the shoes of an offensive lineman. In those shoes, the first thing I want to do is charge off the line and hit someone with a block that’s got a head of steam behind it. The second thing I want to do is backpedal into pass coverage and set my feet to keep a charging defender out of the space behind me. In both cases, my job is clear. With Frank Gore charging into the line or Alex Smith dropping back to pass, my job is clear. With Coilin Kaepernick running read options and scrambling around behind me, my job just got a lot more difficult. Now I’ll have to admit, my intuition told me Frank Gore, like Vernon Davis, had been marginalized in the second half of the season, with Kaepernick as the starter. In fact, he actually had more carries in the last 8 games, which surprised me. What doesn’t surprise me, though, is that his yards-per-carry was down, given the increased complexity and uneven rhythms of the offensive scheme. Again, I like a team that comes at an opponent and beats them, not a team that feels like it has to fool the opponent into losing.

Two other things I found interesting about the changes in the running attack: First, Alex Smith is no Colin Kaepernick when it comes to running the ball, but he’s no Ben Roethlisberger either: he ran the ball 27 times as a starter with a very respectable 4.8 yards-per-carry average. Second, with Smith as the starter, the three of these players—Gore, Smith, and Kaepernick—averaged 5.6 yards per carry. With Kaepernick starting, they averaged only 4.5.

RushingSmith as StarterKaepernick as Starter


Finally, and perhaps apropos of nothing, there’s the defense. There has been lots of talk about the precipitous decline in the Niner defense’s performance late in the season, and how their abysmal first half performance in the NFC Championship Game nearly cost the team the win, and how a similar performance in the first half of the Super Bowl ultimately did. So on my part I’ll just point to the fact that the defense performed better with Smith as the starter and leave it to more dedicated souls to figure out why. Was it because a more efficient 49er offense allowed them to play less, and thus perform better? Or was it the other way around: the defense simply faltering in the second half of the season, thus making Kaepernick’s job harder than Smith’s had been.

Defense          Smith  Kaepernick
Yards Allowed

The unfortunate thing about all this is that it's very unlikely there will be a chance for any of this analysis to be proven right or wrong. In order for Alex Smith to perform this well again, he’ll have to find himself starting for a team that has all the tools at its disposal that the current 49ers do, and let’s face it, there aren’t many teams like that around. Alternatively, he could remain the 49ers backup—something that has been talked about lately—in which case he’ll have no chance to prove himself. I would of course be extremely surprised if Kaepernick didn’t continue to grow into a truly great NFL quarterback worthy of every bit of the hype. I seriously have nothing against the kid. I just don’t think this was the time to thrust him into the starting role, and I will always regret that Harbaugh decided to do so.