By Scott Warfe
With the passing of yet another NFL season comes a dawn of a 49ers fan tradition, of sorts. It is a momentous time, when all gather together embracing the reality of another season’s departure. It is the beginning of the offseason, a time in which the recounting of blessings takes a back seat to the recounting of lost time, and even worse, lost wagers. It is the revival period, indeed, when all 49ers fans gratefully proclaim: “At least I’m not a Raiders fan.”
And yet, this offseason is different. The tradition is altered because nothing else is. That is, the 49ers will undergo no changes, so to speak. The team, in its entirety, is likely to stay intact. Such quality is ineffable. I mean, what do you call it when your team has a chance to build upon its previous success? Whatever it is, I have not name for it. It is not in my vocabularly, but obstinate is.
Obstinate might just be an apt word to describe those Faithful who have not given up the oldest, most dogged tradition of them all: the Sacrifice of Alex Smith.
Every year, the huddled masses divide. On one side, those who believe in Smith; on the other, those who do not. The arguments are stale. The fighting, lugubrious. The talk radio, unexciting.
But, tradition is tradition. To not engage in this discussion would leave us discussing what, exactly? The Republican Primaries? Talk about stale and unexciting. The Susan G. Komen controversy? Been there, done that. NASCAR? See “The Republican Primaries.”
In all, there is little that the anti-Smith crowd can argue. His season was a stark improvement. His playoff performance was (kinda) stellar. He was, for all intents and purposes, a very good quarterback. And, what’s more, he’s only going to get better. Here’s why:
05. He has yet to reach his prime.
Smith, at 27, still has plenty of room to grow. In fact, according to Stefan G. Hrdina and Paul M. Sommers of Middlebury College, “as quarterbacks learn the plays in a team’s playbook and develop the ability to decipher defenses, their performance should increase with age” (my emphasis). While this is not ground breaking, by any means, the fact that Hrdina and Sommers’s study found that modern QBs don’t reach their prime until their 31 years old might be. This number is up slightly from a similar mid-90s study, which found 29.4 years to be the prime age for QBs. But, given advances in health and medicine, that number is on the rise.
This could both be good and bad news for some 49ers fans. On the one hand, Smith still has ample time to continue his improvement. On the other hand, that time will likely come while quarterbacking the 49ers.
04. He is a father.
Last August, I wrote that of all the possible agents for change, fatherhood had the biggest potential in the extreme makeover of Alex Smith. Though it sounds rather ridiculous (even typing it now, I find myself thinking, “really”), time has proven me—at least partially—correct.
Research suggests that while pregnancy (and eventual parenthood) causes women to change viscerally, it causes men to change intellectually. Specifically, according to Craig Kinsley, Professor of Psychology at the University of Richmond, and Kelly Lambert, chair of the psychology department at Randolph-Macon College, fatherhood stimulates areas of the brain that are responsible for problem-solving. The biggest transformation occurs in the hypothalamus, in which the external stimuli (the baby) increases the production of vasopressin, which translates to better problem solving skills, as well as a calmer response to exterior stressors.
In what two skills did Smith vastly improvement? While five 4th quarter comebacks speak volumes, I’ll leave it you to decide.
03. The offense is tailor made for him.
This too is similar to what I wrote a few weeks ago, but it’s worth readdressing. There is little doubt that Smith’s decision-making improved drastically. Advance stats seem to confirm this, as Scott Willis of Crazy Crabbers (@BAStatsGuy and @CrazyCrabbers) gave Alex Smith (and the 49ers) a “B” for Pass Efficiency. While I’d love to attribute this to my discovery of Kinsley and Lambert’s discovery, I cannot.
According to Grantland’s Chris Brown, Harbaugh’s offense has eliminated the “complex ballet of synchronized adjustments” necessary when adapting to blitzes. In short, Harbaugh has simplified Smith’s decision making.
What’s more, Brown alludes to Walsh in passing, noting that Harbaugh’s not mimicking Walsh’s West Coast Offense as much as he is Bo Schembechler’s power running game. Still, Harbaugh is mimicking Walsh in ways that further simplify Smith’s decision making.
In a lecture entitled “A Method For Game Planning,” Walsh discusses scripting plays. According to Walsh, the 49ers wouldn’t “script” plays so much as they would “rehearse” the entire first half. In doing so, Walsh believed that the quarterback’s (and team’s) decisions would be “clinical” and “objective.” The goal was to avoid decisions in times of “desperation,” when one needs to make “very calculated decisions.”
Desperate decisions are “rarely done in warfare,” Walsh explained. “And certainly not in football.”
Harbaugh, by his own admission, scripts the first 38 plays. It stands to reason that the preparation throughout the week would mirror that of Walsh’s. With that, it is apparent that the offensive philosophy in terms of play-calling and preparation is more conducive to Smith’ intellectual strengths.
To read the other two reasons to be optimistic about Smith’s future, click here.