The NFL playoffs are a whole ‘nother beast, as some say. It is a time when players shine or fold, coaches are lauded or vilified, and owners are elated or upset, depending on the outcomes of games. The media also loves to blow storylines way out of proportion and all of the sudden, non-football fans have a vested interest in which team wins.
There is something to be said about rooting for the underdogs. Rocky Balboa, the Americans in the Revolutionary War, Women’s Suffrage, but in a lesser form, the playoffs bring out natural underdogs. This year, that comes in the form of San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith.
Drafted first overall by the Niners in 2005, the stakes were pretty high for Smith to succeed and be the next great quarterback in 49ers history. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case. Instead, he has been labeled a bust. However, one has to wonder if the instability of the Niners coaching staff over the years hurt Smith’s development.
Ever since Jim Harbaugh signed on to the head coaching position in San Francisco this past offseason, Alex Smith has been tasked with doing just enough to win football games. The formula is pretty simple, don’t turn over the ball, hand the rock to Frank Gore, and pass for around 200 yards per game. The heavy reliance on the defense is the key to the whole Harbaugh system.
As a result, Smith has flourished by putting up his best season to date passing for 3,144 yards, 17 touchdowns, and only five interceptions. Meanwhile, he’s completed 61.3 percent of his passes, all of which are career-best marks. Smith helped the Niners reach the postseason with a 13-3 record, and has many fans re-evaluating that “bust” tag they applied years ago.
There was another quarterback drafted a year before Smith, who early in his career relied on his legs to extend plays and a defense to limit the individual burden of winning games. Ben Roethlisberger (Big Ben), played under legendary coach, Bill Cowher early in his career and in 2005, Roethlisberger led the Pittsburgh Steelers to a 11-5 record (he was 9-3 that year). During the regular season, Big Ben passed for 2,385 yards, 17 touchdowns, nine interceptions while completing 62.7 percent in only 12 games.
That postseason he passed for 803 yards, seven touchdowns, rushed for two touchdowns, while completing to nearly 62 percent of his passes. During that Super Bowl run, he defeated Carson Palmer’s Bengals, a Peyton Manning-led Indianapolis Colts team, Jake Plummer and the Denver Broncos, and Matt Hasslebeck’s Seattle Seahawks. The point being made here as that in order to make it to the big game, quarterbacks need to beat their better or more established counterparts.
That being said, Smith can say he beat one of the very best quarterbacks in the game today, Drew Brees, in last week’s win over the New Orleans Saints, 36-32. In a game where it could have easily spun out of control in the waning moments, Smith out-dueled Brees who earlier in the season broke the all-time single season passing yards record. Smith rushed for a 28-yard touchdown and then threw a 14-yard touchdown pass with seconds left to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. The Niners relied on Smith when their defense failed them in the fourth quarter, which is reason to believe that he just may have turned the corner.
For comparison’s sake, Big Ben has made a career of extending plays and doing just enough to win games. The Steelers’ Super Bowl run that year reeked of a stifling defense and a great running game (Willie Parker and Jerome Bettis) with the quarterback who didn’t turn the ball over, always putting the offense in a position to succeed, and passing for around 200 yards each game. Pittsburgh were underdogs that postseason, playing three roads games before defeating the Seahawks
with help from the officials, perhaps.
If you need even more evidence, the Niners defense in 2011 is second in the league in points allowed and fourth in the league in yards surrendered. The 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers were third and fourth, respectively. Meanwhile, the Niners were eighth rushing yards and Steelers were fifth overall in 2005.
The Niners have the luxury of two home games before a possible Super Bowl appearance, but Smith will need to defeat another elite quarterback, Eli Manning, and a very hot New York Giants team. While Smith’s career won’t be defined by this next game, it could impact how fans perceive him in the future and he only stands to gain here. He’ll need to play like he has nothing to lose, and at this point, it’s a cliche he’s been playing under all season long.
Lead Columnist/Editor: James Kraft
You can follow him on Twitter: @jkra0512