Well it’s been a while, hasn’t it? I’ve sat out this offseason waiting for, as Jack Sparrow once said, the opportune moment. This is that moment. As we begin the runup to Training Camp, staring on July 24th, I ran into a few questions that I find intriguing enough to answer on this blog.
The first is a question regarding the Quarterback issue. Over on Matt Maiocco’s blog at the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, a fan called San Jose 49er said the following in the comments:
“Damon Bruce said ‘If Alex Smith came back to be a decent quarterback it would be the biggest comeback in the history of the NFL.’ Name one quarterback that has started a career like this and ended up even being decent? Thats what I thought… none.”
Of course I took this opportunity to look into the issue and decide if there indeed had been any quarterback that fits this equation. One fan posited Terry Bradshaw as his answer, with the challenge for San Jose 49er to “do some research.” Not to worry, I did it for him. I went straight to our very own quarterback history.
Steve Young fits this bill. In 1986 for Tampa Bay he played in 11 games, threw for 2k yards, 8 TD, 13 INT, 47 sacks. He did better the next year, in 8 games he threw for 10 TD and 0 INT, but only 570 yards. In 1988 in 11 games for the 49ers, 680 yds 3 TD, 3 INT, 13 sacks. Steve Young’s future in the league was questioned right up to the point he was named the starter. If you forget that, you’re either too young to remember or too blind to notice.
So I calculated Young’s first three years vs. Smith’s first three years:
G Att Comp Pct Yds Avg TD INT SCK RATING
27 570 304 53% 3787 6.6 21 21 71 71.14
32 800 435 54.4% 4679 5.8 19 31 81 63.5
Then I even broke it down by average per game over those three years, because that’s the kind of dedication I bring:
Att Comp Pct Yds Avg TD INT SCK RATING
21 11 52% 140 6.6 .7 .7 2.6 70.73
25 13 52% 146 5.8 .6 .9 2.5 62.75
Smith and Young are comparable on accuracy around 53%, comparable in yards, and neither very impressive with their rating. Young turned out pretty darn good later on.
What about Terry Bradshaw? Well he wasn’t even a “great” quarterback. He’s the Trent Dilfer of his day. In fact, I compared him to Trent Dilfer for you, because I bring it, fo rillz, yo.
Att Comp Pct Yds Avg TD INT SCK RTG
2025 3901 51.9 27,989 7.2 212 210 307 70.9
1759 3172 55.5 20,518 6.5 113 129 263 70.2
Any guess as to which numbers are for the Hall-of-Famer and which are for the career scrub? The only time Bradshaw threw over 60% in a season was when he had 8 pass attempts in 1983, his final year. For the record, the top line is Bradshaw, and Dilfer was a more accurate passer! This just goes to show how a great supporting cast can help you. Imagine if Alex Smith had John Stallworth and Lynn Swann to throw to!
Look at John Elway. He was under 60%, 1 to 1 TD to INT ratio (or worse) all the way through 1991. Yeah he had a ton of yards, but his career rating is 79.9.
Now, let me be frank here: The Quarterback Rating system is an imperfect system. It was designed to place a greater weight on completion percentage and Touchdown to Interception ratio. This goes to the strength of the West Coast Offense. However, a guy like Dan Marino has an 86.4 rating, which will not take into account his massive number of yards and touchdowns. A high rating is great to have, but ultimately means nothing. In the end Bradshaw has four rings, and Marino has none.
So what’s the point? Am I implying that Alex Smith is every bit as good as Steve Young, Dan Marino, and John Elway? Certainly not. Am I saying Smith will win Super Bowls while being as bad as Terry Bradshaw or Trent Dilfer? I hope not. The point is that after three seasons his fate is hardly decided at this juncture, and I maintain that it’s not his fault. Yes, that’s right, it’s time for “excuses” as some say, or “facts” as I like to call them.
The last five years in San Francisco may in fact be the worst ever environment for players or coaches in the history of sports. Terry Donahue managed to almost singlehandedly destroy the salary cap status of the franchise. He also managed to rob us of a good coach in Steve Mariucci. Dennis Erickson stepped into a situation of ineptitude and micromanagement, and never really had a chance to succeed.
Enter Mike Nolan, a rookie head coach. Enter Alex Smith, a rookie quarterback. Both of these men stepped into a situation where ownership wanted to change things around. Both of these men stepped into the historically hallowed positions “49ers Head Coach” and “49ers Quarterback,” with expectations to do just that. However, it is an ownership that so far has been marked by nearly as much ineptitude as Terry Donahue displayed, but at least they’re trying to learn.
All the quarterbacks mentioned above stepped into the pros after playing the same style of football in college. This factor cannot be overlooked. All the Hall of Fame quarterbacks mentioned above played for Hall of Fame coaches at the outset. They all had consistency in their coaching staff and playing style. Alex Smith has had none of that.
From day one Nolan and Smith were expected to be as good as Walsh and Montana. Like it or not, say it or not, no city or fan base comes pre-installed with the same level of expectations as San Francisco. Fans of this team have come to expect greatness, and so they demand greatness. From day one McCarthy used this as a vehicle to go coach Brett Favre, Turner used it as a vehicle away from the Raiders, Hostler… got in the vehicle and didn’t know how to drive it.
Smith has always had the physical tools to be a great quarterback, he’s just never had the coach who could draw out the good and refine away the bad. He has already done that 49er Quarterback thing of cementing himself in NFL history, when he made the single greatest improvement in quarterback rating jumping up from 40 in year one to 74 in year two. The quarterbacks above had consistency in their coaching staff, quality receivers to throw to, and an offensive line that knew how to protect.
This is the first season he will have all three of those pieces. Now watch what he does with them.