There is no denying that Alex Smith has played well. He ranks in the top three in yards-per-attempt, completion percentage, and accuracy percentage (completions minus drops and throw aways). He’s been as accurate as Peyton Manning when under pressure, and he’s completed the same percentage of deep passes as Aaron Rodgers. In this regard, his benching is an injustice–one made more severe when we consider the circumstances which lead to Colin Kaepernick’s playing time.
But Smith’s recent success shouldn’t overshadow the many failings of his tenure with the 49ers. Simply put, Smith didn’t lose his job because of a concussion. He lost his job because of his poor play in the playoffs last season. Though this may run counter to our memories of the great comeback he lead against the Saints, the reality is Smith held the offense back when it mattered the most.
Against New Orleans
Last season, the Saints were ranked 26th in total defense. They allowed almost two passing touchdowns a game, which ranked in the bottom five. Pro Football Focus (PFF) rated their pass coverage 28th, while Football Outsiders (FO) rated it 26th. In total, they were bad. Really bad. And yet, they managed to shut down Smith and the 49ers.
In the final three series, Smith led the offense to 205 yards, two touchdowns and a field goal. In the previous 13, Smith lead them to 186 yards, two touchdowns, two field goals, eight punts and one fumble. In seven of their 16 drives, the Smith-lead 49ers failed to gain more than eight yards.
Without the final two drives, Smith would have completed just 51% of his passes for 164 yards. That’s only 4.96 yards per attempt. Sure, he still led the team to two touchdowns. But, his role in these scoring drives was marginal at best. The first score was a 49 yard pass to Vernon Davis, 32 of which were gained by Davis after the catch. The next was set up by Dashon Goldson, who intercepted Drew Brees and took the ball to the Saints’ 4-yard line.
In all, Smith didn’t lead the 49ers to victory as much as his teammates did. 55.2% of his total yardage was gained after the catch. This is worse than Curtis Painter and Blaine Gabbert’s regular season numbers. 21% worse than T.J. Yates’ playoff performance for the Houston Texans. Those final two drives don’t compensate for an otherwise miserable game.
Against the New York Giants
The Giants’ defense was better than that of the Saints, but not by much. New York still ranked in the bottom ten by most major statistical measures. On the road, they’re even worse, giving up 40 more yards per game and five more points. PFF rated their secondary as the 17th best, while FO rated them 19th. Regardless of how bad the Giants’ defense was, Smith managed to be worse.
Smith completed only 46.2% of his passes, zero of which were drops, despite having an average 3.78 seconds to throw (nearly one full second more than Eli Manning had). He passed for just five first downs, a number that pales in comparison to Manning’s 17. He failed to convert a single third down on the day–the only conversion the 49ers had came on a 14-yard Kendall Hunter run.
In the fourth quarter, when the 49ers needed a rally, Smith proved incapable of providing one. On the last play of the game, Smith connected with Delanie Walker for a meaningless 29 yards. Prior to that, he had completed just three of nine for 11 yards.
To say Smith was bad would be an understatement. Harbaugh’s secret offseason trip to watch Manning workout was a direct result of this. It was a reflection of Harbaugh’s belief in Smith. After all, how could it not be? Smith’s performance in the playoffs showcased his limitations. In essence, his play validated the “Smith-as-game-manager” argument that Harbaugh had furiously tried to refute.
Then his follow-up performance against the Giants in Week 6 of this season only reinforced the doubters. Smith’s ceiling as a professional is obvious. He can quarterback winning teams. He can put up good stats. Heck, he can even beat some elite quarterbacks. But he can’t win meaningful games. Not by himself, at least. He didn’t win the Divisional Playoff game. Vernon Davis did. Kyle Williams didn’t lose the Conference Playoff game. Alex Smith did. He didn’t win 19 of his last 25 games. His team did. And they’ll continue to win without him.