Alex Smith

Who’s got it better (at QB): the 49ers or Raiders?

A comparison between the 49ers and Raiders might not be fair. After all, in recent history the Raiders have been severely mismanaged, whereas the 49ers have not. The Raiders have been handicapped by their salary cap, whereas the 49ers have not. And, the Raiders have just been plain ol’ bad, whereas the 49ers have been only kinda bad.

In any case, a comparison is apt, if only because of the two teams’ proximity. Proximity, after all, is wonderful for inciting turf wars, and as with any turf war, you must choose your weapon carefully. For this comparison, and others of the like, the weapon of choice is advanced statistics.

And so, we begin with the quarterbacks. Since Alex Smith brought up Cam Newton’s name recently (as you may or may not have heard), let’s include him, too.

Player

DYAR

DVOA

Passes

Yards

EYds

Comp %

AV

A. Smith

668

10.4%

496

2,942

3,394

61.6%

13

C. Palmer

434

8.9%

347

2,663

2,332

61.2%

8

C. Newton

619

7.1%

554

3,847

3,578

60.3%

19

DYAR: Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement gives a numerical value to a player in comparison to a replacement-level player (as opposed to a starter).

DVOA: Defense-adjust Value Above Average attempts to measure a player’s impact during a given situation. It does so on a percentage scale: 0.0% is the average. As with DYAR, the higher the percentage, the better.

EYards: Effective Yards is DVOA translated into yards. Players who achieve higher Effective Yards than actual yards played better than their numbers indicate. Players who achieved less played worse

AV: Absolute Value ranks players on a scale from 0 to 25. The breakdown of the scale is as follows:

AV

Description

20-25

MVP quality

11-19

All-Pro/Pro Bowl quality

7-10

Starter quality

3-6

Backup/rotational quality

1-2

Role player quality

0

Camp Fodder/Practice Squad quality

A more complete breakdown of these measurements can be found here.

Surprisingly, despite his paltry numbers, Smith faired much better than both Palmer and Newton (except in Absolute Value). Most suggestive of Smith’s performance is his DYAR and DVOA, both of which would rank him as the 13th-best quarterback, just behind Andy Dalton. DYAR suggests a quarterback’s overall total value, while DVOA suggests a play-by-play value.

Palmer wasn’t much worse, a shock when considering the unique circumstances surrounding his acquisition.

Last year aside, the histories of both Palmer and Smith tell stories of quarterbacks who are trending in different directions.

Smith

DYAR

DVOA

Passes

Yards

EYds

Comp %

AV

2011

668

10.4%

496

2,942

3,394

61.6%

13

2010

134

-5.4%

342

2,243

n/a

59.6%

6

2009

-106

-15.4%

372

2,350

n/a

60.5%

7

Though this goes without saying, Smith has significantly improved under Harbaugh’s tutelage. Earth shattering, I know.

Still, it is interesting to note just how big of an improvement Smith made. In 2009, Smith’s play was much worse than that of a replacement-level player (or back-up). In 2010, Smith’s overall value (as indicated by DYAR) indicates he performed better than average, while his play-by-play value (DVOA) shows how his play injured the team. In short, from 2009-2010, Smith’s play forced fans to do the unthinkable: Attach their hopes and dreams to the Shaun Hills and Troy Smiths of the world.

Palmer

DYAR

DVOA

Passes

Yards

EYds

Comp %

AV

2011

434

8.9%

347

2,663

2,332

61.2%

8

2010

1009

13.8%

622

3,892

n/a

61.8%

11

2009

739

12.9%

498

2,995

n/a

60.5%

10

Palmer’s numbers tell a slightly different story. Statistically speaking, Palmer’s best years were from 2005-07. Since then, his skills have been steadily declining, according to his stats anyway. It should be noted, however, that he only played in four games in 2008 due to injury, and that Palmer did enjoy a relative jump in production in 2010. Because of this, 2011 could be a statistical anomaly.

Given the circumstances, Palmer played admirably. Not only was he thrust into action the same week he was signed, but he also had to play behind one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL. Perhaps most impressive of all is the fact that Palmer turned Darrius Heyward-Bey into a productive receiver, an feat Alex Smith has yet to accomplish with Michael Crabtree.

That said, I have to believe the 49ers have it better at quarterback this season. While I do not necessarily believe the 49ers have the better QB, they certainly have the better situation.

Palmer has a few things working against him: he must learn a new offensive system (a non-Air Coryell type) for the first time in his career, and he must do so behind a questionable offensive line. The Raiders also failed to surround Palmer with any meaningful new weapons. In fact, the case can be made that in losing Michael Bush and Kevin Boss, the Raiders will field a worse offense this year than they did in the previous.

The 49ers, on the other hand, have focused their offseason on upgrading their offense, both via free agency and the draft. Whether or not Smith is able to spin this offseason’s hay into gold is yet to be seen. But if last year is any indicator, his chances are promising. If nothing else, he’ll probably be more successful than Palmer.

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