The latest story line coming out of the media for the 49ers seems to be that Alex Smith has turned some kind of corner. You know, that he’s finally figured things out and has what it takes to be a good NFL quarterback.
Gone are the stories doubting Smith, gone are the reports of his teammates not trusting him, gone are the days of fans calling for the backup.
All of this has been replaced with fluff pieces talking about the New Alex SmithTM. The calls for his head have been replaced with how he’s now a team leader. The talk about how the 49ers could never win with him has been replaced with how he is leading a much-improved offense. All the talk about him being an epic bust has been replaced with how Jim Harbuagh has turned him into something brand new.
When you take a look at the stats you might just believe this.
For example he is 9th in passer rating with a 95.2 mark, above guys like Tony Romo, Michael Vick, Jason Cambell and Philip Rivers; these are all guys that one might consider to be pretty good quarterbacks. In addition this season’s QB rating is leaps and bounds above his career 74.3 mark.
So he must be something new and improved right? To all that, I say not so fast. If you peel things back like the layers of an onion, a different story unfolds.
Sure, Smith’s been better, but he’s not something new. Over the last few years he has essentially played at a league average clip and so far this season he is still the same old Smith that 49ers fans wanted to run out of town, just with a better spin and the full backing of his coach. This story of rejuvenation is just a narrative created by the media to try and explain the 49ers resurgence and it has had the effect of casting Smith in the role of a good quarterback.
When you take a look at what Smith has been asked to do a different story comes into view. Smith has attempted the 24th most passes in the league with just 178. Smith is ranked 19th with 6.9 yards per attempt. He has attempted the 6th-fewest deep passes (15+ yards from the line of scrimmage) this season, which is a big part of why he has completed so many passes and has a high QB Rating.
If we look at the advanced statistics, instead of a quarterback that is in the top tier we see something closer to league average or maybe slightly below.
Football Outsiders stats are generally more favorable to Smith than the other websites that provide advanced stats but even with that they still paint a picture of a guy that is just slightly above average. Smith’s Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DOVA) sits at 8.9% putting him smack dab in the middle of the pack at 16th. Smith’s Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement (DYAR) is 17th best with 219 yards above replacement.
If we take a look at Advanced NFL Stats‘ Success Rate stat we see that less than half (41.9%) of the plays that Smith is involved in increased the 49ers chances of winning the game, which ranks 29th in the league. Using their Win Probability Added (WPA) stat he has been a negative influence on the 49ers chances with the 22nd-best mark for quarterbacks.
Switching over to ESPN’s black box stat Total Quarter Back Rating (TQBR) Smith is ranked 28th with a rating of 38.5 which means that he has been significantly below average, and this even includes the Tampa Bay game where he posted the highest TQBR rating of the season with a 98.2! Below I have plotted his weekly TQBR and TQBR to date because at least ESPN is nice enough to give us the weekly updates even if they don’t give us the tools to calculate ourselves.
I don’t want to come off as sounding like an Alex Smith detractor because I still think that he has been a better quarterback than what has been portrayed in the media over the last five years. More than anything I think that what I wrote back in September is correct.
The thing is that Smith has done exactly what the 49ers have asked him to do, which is essentially not lose the game for the team. Harbaugh and Co. have turned him into an excellent game manager with a game plan that asks him to keep things manageable with the heavy lifting done by the offensive line, running game, defense and special teams.
This is just the cycle of bashing and praise that is a symptom of the modern NFL’s disease of overvaluing the importance of the quarterback; they get all the praise when things are going well but they also get all of the blame when things are going poorly. Right or wrong that is the way it is.
When things were going poorly, us fans needed to lay off Alex because the 49ers woes were not all his fault. And now that things are going well we need to be careful not to put Smith on a pedestal and start expecting more from him than he’s capable of delivering.
As fans we need to manage our expectations like Alex Smith has learned to manage the game.