Yesterday marked the third Sunday in a row that we didn’t have the 49ers on our television. Two primetime games in a row plus a bye week has my Sunday afternoons feeling real empty; this must be what it’s like to be a Cowboys fan, except we’re watching the 49ers WIN on national television (HEEY-OOOOO).
This last week without the 49ers has left a lot of time to think about Alex Smith. As much as it would be nice to see Smith succeed and become a Bay Area hero, his presence is starting to get a little old. Don’t take that the wrong way, it’s not his fault. Truth is, he’s never going to get any respect around here because winning regular season games isn’t enough.
We get it – he rarely throws for 300 yards and you probably don’t have him starting on your fantasy team. Forget that he’s 20-6 since Jim Harbaugh moved operations to Santa Clara; he’s not starring in Dodge Dart commercials or going to World Series games so he’ll always be driving parade floats rather than riding in them.
My ears started bleeding when I turned on KNBR last Tuesday and heard Smith getting criticized for his Monday night performance. He completed a record 18-of-19 passes for 232 yards and three touchdowns with a quarterback rating of 157.1 – still, the rub remained the same: he checks down too much, his success is predicated on good play calling, and YAC from the wideouts put makeup on his pig.
Checking down (to the film)
I’ll preface by saying that some of this gobble gobble turkey from jive turkey gobblers about Smith is true: he’d rather throw short passes than huck the ball downfield and he takes more sacks than he probably should because he isn’t a fan of taking risks. Still, last Tuesday was a pretty bad time to criticize Alex Smith, because this win was all number 11.
1. Throwing his receiver open
Sometimes yards after catch are as much a product of the quarterback’s arm as they are the wide receiver’s legs. Exhibit A: Crabtree’s 22-yard catch in the second quarter.
That’s Michael Crabtree getting ready to show off a new move to Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson. Smith looks downfield and doesn’t see anything he likes, so he loads up to hit Crabtree.
Crabtree stops and reverses field on Peterson, leaving the corner a step behind. Smith sees this and fires the ball perfectly to the outside shoulder of his wideout.
Nothing but wide open space to the left of Crabtree, which he grazes for 22 yards. Had Smith put that ball on the numbers, it would have taken an extra step to get free and Peterson would have caught him, probably short of that total.
2. Making effective pre-snap reads
Sometimes being a quarterback means that you have to read and understand the defense you’re facing. This is supposed to be Smith’s bread and butter, but only once he has a full grasp of the offense. A year and a half into his tenure with Greg Roman, he’s doing this kind of stuff on a regular basis. Check out the touchdown to Randy Moss:
Smith notices that the Cardinals are cheating in their safeties to cover the slot receivers. He also sees that Arizona is showing blitz with two of their linebackers, a formula that leaves Randy Moss in single coverage on the top of the screen.
Just like they drew it up, Moss has the single coverage. Vernon Davis (just below the 40-yard-line marker at the top of the screen) is headed deep downfield, but there’s a safety coming over to double him, so Smith hits Moss, who’s open on a button hook. It would have been completed for close to a first down, but Moss wanted to show off, so he took it 47 yards for a touchdown.
This is just a bonus: check out the two Cardinals spooning while they watch Moss pass. One of them even tries to high five Moss as he passes but Moss is simply too busy for fans.
3. Looking off defenses
We’ve seen Smith make plays with his arm and his mind – let’s look at him making one with his eyes. The 49ers needed six yards to move the chains after a Frank Gore run on first down. He took the snap, knowing his hot read was Mario Manningham to his left.
As he drops back, his eyes stay downfield, with the defense cheating to account for Delanie Walker on the right. Notice that Davis (left side of the screen) is heading that direction too, and both Cardinals linebackers are moving that way.
Smith quickly whips his head left and hits Manningham with a perfect pass right at the first down marker. This drive led to the 49ers’ second touchdown of the day, a 9-yard pass from Smith to Crabtree five plays later.