The San Francisco 49ers are by far the most pleasant surprise in NFL in 2011. They’ve won all their games, save for a very winnable game they gave to the Dallas Cowboys all the way back in week 2.
Statistically speaking, the 49ers shouldn’t have the 2nd best record in the NFL. They boast the 11th ranked defense in the league, and their offense is tied with the Rams for 25th best in the league. When we look deeper, however, we find our answer.
The 49ers have intercepted opponents 12 times this season, while they’ve only thrown 3 interceptions themselves. That’s the difference. The 49ers are one of the most efficient teams in the league both offensively and defensively. In quite plain terms, they don’t give games away.
A big part of that success has been Alex Smith. This season, Smith is completing more of his passes than ever before in his career, throwing more touchdowns, and throwing less interceptions. There’s been talk of calling him an elite quarterback, something he’s not, but that raises the question. What category does Alex Smith fit in to?
First of all, we need to set the parameters for classifying quarterbacks. I reserve the term “elite” for the top two or three guys in the game at any given time. This season, for example, I would call Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, and Eli Manning the only “elite” quarterbacks. You could certainly make the argument for Drew Brees to be included instead of Manning, but the point is that “elite” is the absolute cream of the crop. There’s no higher distinction in my mind that being given that designation.
The rest of the quarterbacks, in my example, are broken down into 4 categories. Those categories are very good, average, poor, and terrible. If you want to say it’s a tier system, that’s fine. “Elite” quarterbacks are the top tier, and it goes down from there. Regardless of the terms you tack on to the system, it keeps it simple and well-defined.
Now, where does Alex Smith fit? In my mind, his efficiency has been the real story of this season, and it’s good enough to define him as a second tier quarterback or very good. Is he one of the best in the league? No, but he’s not far behind. That being the case, the 49ers don’t need an “elite” quarterback to win most of their games. They simply need a game manager that can make big throws if the need arises, and that’s exactly the role that Smith fills, and that’s not meant as a back-handed compliment.
Alex Smith has always been faced with obstacles during his NFL career. He’s learned more offensive systems than most of us have seen in our lives. He’s dealt with regime changes and injuries. Now, it appears that he only ever needed a stable team around him, and he’s been flourishing all season. Make no mistake about the 49ers and Alex Smith. These guys find a way to get it done, and they’re more physical than nearly every team in the league. Alex Smith may not get the recognition he deserves, but his play has been an integral part to his team’s success, and that will continue to be the case as the 49ers gear up for their first playoff run in nearly a decade.