Aaron Rodgers

Putting Alex Smith’s Cam Newton Theory to the test

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith was a rarity last season in that he didn’t pass for 300 yards in a game once. He came close a couple times, once throwing for 291 yards in Philadelphia and barely missing in the NFC Divisional Round with 299 yards against New Orleans.

The 300-yard club isn’t as exclusive as it once was, as the feat was accomplished 121 times by 34 different quarterbacks in 2011. There are 32 NFL teams. The San Francisco 49ers aren’t used to being left out of the passing party, but they went 14-4 and were a bad bounce away from facing a New England Patriots team in the Super Bowl that they certainly could’ve beaten. So nobody’s complaining that loudly about the lack of videogame numbers from Smith, but the additions the 49ers made this past off-season show they’d like like to break the 300-yard barrier at least a time or two in 2012.

Smith, who’s probably heard the detractors point to his failure to pass for 300 yards in a game all that often (he’s done it twice — once in 2009 and once in 2010), made his true feelings clear yesterday after practice. From Eric Branch:

Asked today to account for why the 49ers ranked 29th in NFL in passing yards per game last year (183.1), Smith became, by his standards, somewhat animated.

He didn’t exactly raise his voice, but he was at least mildly irked.

“I could absolutely care less on yards per game,” Smith said. “I think that is a totally overblown stat because if you’re losing games in the second half, guess what, you’re like the Carolina Panthers and you’re going no-huddle the entire second half. Yeah, Cam Newton threw for a lot of 300-yard games. That’s great. You’re not winning, though.”

Smith’s comments got me thinking — what’s the correlation between 300-yard games and winning … or losing? The Panthers didn’t win any of the three games where Newton passed for over 300 yards, but they were also the worst team in the NFL a year earlier and improved significantly in 2011. To get a better handle on this, here’s a list of passers ranked by the number of 300-yard games each QB amassed during the 2011 regular season (team winning percentage in parentheses):

  1. Drew Brees: 11-2 (.846)
  2. Tom Brady: 9-2 (.818)
  3. Aaron Rodgers: 8-0 (1.000)
  4. Matt Stafford: 5-3 (.625)
  5. Eli Manning: 4-4 (.500)
  6. Philip Rivers: 3-3 (.500)
  7. Matt Ryan: 2-4 (.333)
  8. Ben Roethlisberger: 3-2 (.600)
  9. Tony Romo: 1-4 (.200)
  10. Joe Flacco: 1.000 (4-0)
  11. Carson Palmer: 1-3 (.250)
  12. Matt Hasselbeck: 3-0 (1.000)
  13. Michael Vick: 1-2 (.333)
  14. Mark Sanchez: 1-2 (.333)
  15. Ryan Fitzpatrick: 1-2 (.333)
  16. Cam Newton: 0-3 (.000)
  17. Rex Grossman: 2-0 (1.000)
  18. John Skelton: 2-0 (1.000)
  19. Jay Cutler: 1-1 (.500)
  20. Josh Freeman: 1-1 (.500)
  21. Kyle Orton: 0-2 (.000)
  22. Andy Dalton: 0-2 (.000)
  23. Sam Bradford: 0-2 (.000)
  24. Jason Campbell: 0-2 (.000)
  25. Matt Schaub: 0-2 (.000)
  26. Tarvaris Jackson: 0-2 (.000)
  27. Kevin Kolb: 1-0 (1.000)
  28. T.J. Yates: 1-0 (1.000)
  29. Matt Flynn: 1-0 (1.000)
  30. Colt McCoy: 0-1 (.000)
  31. Chad Henne: 0-1 (.000)
  32. Dan Orlovsky: 0-1 (.000)
  33. Christian Ponder: 0-1 (.000)
  34. Vince Young: 0-1 (.000)

Overall record for 300-yard passers: 66-55

Overall record for 400-yard passers: 6-12

In the playoffs, teams with a 300-yard passer went 5-3. Neither quarterback passed for 300 yards in the Super Bowl. 

If we can make any inference from these numbers, it’s that if you’re one of the league’s top three quarterbacks (Brees, Brady and Rodgers, who combined to go 28-4 during 300-yard games) and you’re counted on to throw for a zillion yards every game, passing for 300+ is a strategic move, not a sign of desperation. For nearly everyone else, passing for 300 yards hardly guaranteed victory and going over 400 yards through the air usually resulted in a loss (unless you’re talking about fantasy football).

This was especially true for the Raiders, who went a combined 1-5 when Palmer or Campbell went over the 300-yard threshold. No wonder it drove Raiders Sports Guy nuts whenever the Raiders abandoned the run for no discernible reason.

That doesn’t mean the 49ers would (or should) avoid 300-yard passing days for Smith. With the defense they had last season they should have enjoyed far more meaningless fourth quarters at the end of blowout wins, but the team’s risk-averse offense was built to keep disaster from striking and allow the defensive and special teams units to methodically squeeze the life from opponents. With a tougher schedule and opposing teams expecting more of a fight from the Niners in 2012, Jim Harbaugh, Greg Roman and Smith are going to need to venture out of their comfort zone on occasion. Plus, in facing all three of the top passers from 2011, the 49ers are going to find themselves in a shootout or two.

However, Smith’s point stands. If an offense is built to throw 40+ times a game, a team can pass its way to victory. But generally speaking, most teams that fling the ball around the field are doing so by necessity with less than optimal results. One can probably expect Smith to make the list above in 2012 at least once or twice, but it makes no sense to force the issue — or passes into double coverage to appease fantasy owners.

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