Jim Harbaugh said Alex Smith should represent the NFC in the Pro Bowl, because that’s what coaches do. When a team wins, the coach speaks up on behalf of the starting quarterback … if necessary. That’s why Harbaugh and David Shaw talked up Andrew Luck recently, with Shaw even doing a PowerPoint presentation on Luck’s behalf. Luck needed all the help he could get to win the Heisman Trophy, and even with the endorsement of his two college coaches he still fell short.
Smith’s probably going to fall short when it comes to Pro Bowl selections too, unless there are a couple guys who bow out due to injury or because they have something better to do. Here’s how the NFC quarterbacks stack up:
I grabbed the above screenshot of the quarterbacks after ranking them by QB rating. Smith also ranks 6th among NFC QBs in completion percentage, between Eli Manning and Josh Freeman. Here are Smith’s NFC rankings in other categories:
Passing TD: 8th
Interceptions: 1st (among QBs with at least 250 attempts)
Rushing yards: 6th (153 yards)
Rushing TD: 6th (1 TD)
Times sacked: 16th
Game-winning drives: 2nd (tied with Brees, Stafford, Romo and John Skelton)
4th Quarter Comebacks: 2nd (tied with Romo and Skelton)
Smith’s candidacy for the Pro Bowl would have to be based on two things: wins and efficiency. Smith may not blow anyone away with tons of 300-yard games, but the 49ers are one of only four teams with 11 wins and Smith hasn’t missed one game.
With that in mind, let’s take Eli Manning out of the equation since the Giants are only 7-7. If you leave this up to the quarterbacks from the six teams that will probably be in the playoffs, here’s how most people would rank their seasons:
1. Aaron Rodgers (like the Packers, almost perfect)
2. Drew Brees (on his way to surpassing Peyton Manning’s 450 completions for the most in a season — Brees has four of the top six seasons ever in that category)
3. Tony Romo (quietly having a fantastic season, even with a few boneheaded plays thrown in)
4. Matthew Stafford (Stafford carries an unbalanced Lions offense)
5. Alex Smith (managing the game the way a game manager should)
6. Matt Ryan (we should start saying his name the way Matt Damon says his own name in Team America…)
Rodgers and Brees don’t need their coaches sticking up for them, since the entire world already does. If you asked Harbaugh (and many Niners fans), Smith would be ranked above Romo and Stafford. And Smith has won more games and thrown fewer interceptions than both QBs. Is that enough?
That’s where you get into the realm of the subjective, so let’s pull back a little and go outside for a little fresh air and perspective. Football Outsiders, to be exact, as they have a couple innovative statistics that take defense and situations faced into account called DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement) and DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average). Here’s how they explain the difference between the two:
The simple version: DYAR means a quarterback with more total value. DVOA means a quarterback with more value per play.
Smith doesn’t exactly clean up in either category, finishing 7th in the NFC in passing DYAR and 8th in his conference in passing DVOA. Things change a little when you take rushing into account, as Smith ranks 8th in DYAR as a runner among NFC signal callers and 15th in DVOA (ahead of Tim Tebow in both categories overall, same with Romo; Stafford ranks 13th and 10th in the NFC in those categories, respectively).
Enough stats — will Smith make the Pro Bowl or not?
After going back and forth on this, I’m going to say no. Anyone who closely watches the 49ers appreciates what Smith has done this year, and a lot of the passes that look so inaccurate are due to Smith’s near-phobia of throwing picks (two consecutive red zone incompletions to Kyle Williams and Frank Gore illustrated that perfectly against the Steelers). Still, Smith just hasn’t shined quite enough as a passer to make his first Pro Bowl.
Smith’s improved a great deal and has actually made some outstanding throws this year, throws he never made before. But the Pro Bowl isn’t about navigating through adversity and executing a game plan based on field position, it’s about chucking the ball all over the place and racking up easy yards (which means Tebow’s game is going to look awful strange in Honolulu). When people talk about the best passers in the league, Smith doesn’t enter the conversation — yet. If he builds on the improvements made this year and the 49ers add a good receiver (unlike Braylon Edwards), next year could be the time.
Now if I don’t think he’ll make the Pro Bowl, it’s hard to imagine the powers that be will add him to the squad — especially considering what’s stacked against him (Smith’s fantasy-phobic stats; five other NFC QBs who’ve already made the Pro Bowl in Brees, Rodgers, Romo, Manning and Ryan).
However, there’s one thing about the Pro Bowl itself that could change things: the date. Now that the Pro Bowl takes place a week before the Super Bowl on January 29, one of the quarterbacks on a winning team won’t be able to make it to Hawaii. That could open up a spot for Smith … unless he’s the NFC quarterback who manages to keep his team’s season alive into February.