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Saints vs. 49ers: When Do You Give Up on Alex Smith?

I’m still waiting on Sean Payton to come out and say they won’t try to stop Alex Smith, they will stop him. Perhaps it was implied?

All joking aside, as a completely neutral observer, Alex Smith fascinates me.  (If I were a San Francisco fan, I don’t think that would be the first verb that would come to mind).  The reason he fascinates me (and disturbs others) is because we are now six years into his NFL career, and we still do not know with absolute certainty that he is a complete bust.

A lot of people would disagree with that statement, and after last week’s performance, say it is time to pull the plug. I won’t disagree that this is likely the year that confirms his career path once and for all, but I’m not quite willing to go there yet.  If you made me guess, I would go with “Alex Smith will likely never have an above average season as a starter”, but if you gave me the right odds, I would still take a chance on Alex Smith.

His story is unique.  Yes, he was dreadful when he came in at the end of the year in 2005 as a rookie.  He had also just turned 21 before the season, and 21-year olds should struggle in the NFL; most of the successful QB’s were still chasing skirts in college when Alex Smith was playing in the NFL.

At age 22, he was a slightly below average quarterback on a team that improved to 7-9.  A slightly below average quarterback at age 22 is a promising sign, as virtually every quarterback who played at that age was below average or worse. When we season-adjust his yards per attempt at age 22, he falls right between Peyton Manning and Neil Lomax. Then, though, any promise went away the next year, as he was dreadful at age 23. We found out there was a reason for some of that, as he played games with a serious shoulder injury.  He missed the entire next season with another shoulder injury, and things looked lost.

Last year, after being completely off the grid, he came in and started the last 10 games, as San Francisco went 5-5.  He was slightly below average in yards per attempt, above average in td percentage, and basically league average in completion percentage, interception rate, and sack rate.  Again, he wasn’t great by any means, but he was near league average, and still only 25 years old.  The following quarterbacks had a YPA adjusted to league average the same or worse than Alex Smith at age 25:  Jim Plunkett, Tom Brady, Doug Williams, Rich Gannon, Michael Vick, Mark Brunell, Steve DeBerg, Eli Manning, John Elway, Steve Young, Archie Manning, Jake Plummer and Kerry Collins.

There were also plenty of guys like Joe Pisarcik and Steve Walsh and Tony Banks on that list, so I’m not by any means saying he is some sort of sure thing.  I’m only pointing out that, when he has been healthy at age 22 and age 25, his full season numbers were not so bad that we see no reason for hope.

As for the game, I’m often accused of craziness, but I think the 49ers have a good shot. The only train that skidded off the tracks faster than the 49ers was the Jets last week, and we saw there was a tremendous amount of overreaction there.   Yes, San Francisco got blown out in Seattle 31-6.  Still, Seattle only had 242 total yards and 14 first downs, so it wasn’t a domination in the yardage battle. With all the drama going on in San Fran, I look for a focused effort this week.  We’ll find out whether that is enough against the defending champs.

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