Alex Smith: Counterexample

I think that in almost all cases if a young QB doesn't demonstrate consistent above average performance within a couple seasons, he's not worth sticking with. It's very uncommon for a young QB to toil for several years of below average performance and then suddenly blossom into a winner. Coaches and GMs, analysts, and fans alike all make excuses for poorly performing QBs. They have no 'weapons', no line, the wrong scheme, and so on. Those are certainly valid considerations, but it's the QB himself that mostly drives his numbers.

Sure, you might be able to point to a QB here or there who came on strong to become a consistently above-average player several years his starting career, but for every guy like that (Steve Young might be the most notable) I'll give you multiple Joey Harringtons, Kyle Bollers, Rex Grossmans, and David Carrs.

Alex Smith would have been on that list too, at least until the last couple seasons. He might be the exception to the rule. After Smith's phenomenal game Monday night in which he went 18 for 19 with three TDs, I wondered what really made the difference. A lot of credit has been given to second-year head coach Jim Harbaugh and a new offensive scheme. It's hard to argue otherwise, but I will anyway. Looking at his career trends, he began a significant and consistent improving trend immediately following his missed season of 2008. His improvement from 2009 to 2010 in terms of WPA, EPA, SR, and AYPA under Singletary was as big as his improvement in 2011 after Harbaugh took over. It's as if Smith has had two different careers, a brief, erratic, injury-plagued three-year span from 2005 to 2007, and a middling but improving span since 2009.

I won't pretend to follow the 49ers closely enough to understand the real reasons for his improvement any more than the average poster at Bleacher Report. He's been much healthier in recent seasons. The offensive line has solidified, and the receiver corps is now certainly much better than those led by an aging Isaac Bruce or Arnaz Battle. But I do think the narrative that Smith has been reborn under Harbaugh into an above-average QB is, if not mistaken, fairly shallow.

Smith's recent performance should also be put into context. Even now in the midst of what appears to be a career year, he ranks 14th in EPA per play and 21st in WPA per game. But he does rank near the top of the league in SR at 7th, thanks largely to Monday's game. (I should also note he is tied atop the Air Yards ranking.) Despite the attention heaped upon him, he's only  made the jump from 'clear liability' to 'league average.' That's no small feat in such a competitive league and in an era of plentiful skilled QBs, but the real drivers of SF's success are their #1 running game and top ranked defense.

Here are Smith's career numbers. His full stats can be found here.


Who are other late bloomers? CFL guys don't count!

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19 Responses to “Alex Smith: Counterexample ”

  1. Unknown says:

    Rich Gannon immediately comes to mind. Also, the last link is to an intranet.

  2. Anonymous says:

    How hard is it to generate separate performance numbers for when Smith is ahead and behind? The only time that SF has come from behind this year was a 3-point deficit against Seattle.

  3. bytebodger says:

    Being a Jaguars season ticket holder, I would like to send this link to EVERY Blaine Gabbert defender. (To be fair, he has looked a LITTLE BIT better this season, but I still have massive doubts about him.)

    As for other examples, the one that all of his defenders pull out is Eli Manning. I don't have Eli's career stats in front of me, but his few years were pretty bad.

  4. Ian says:

    I uploaded an excel chart of Alex Smith's EPA/G over time at the game level:

    Based solely on the chart, he may have plateaued.

    My interpretation of the Alex Smith experiment is that given several years of starting experience, many QBs that wash out of the league could become decent given a chance. Most QBs that enter the league aren't #1 picks however and aren't given the opportunity to start as many games as AS.

    I like what Anon touches on about how Alex Smith often plays with a lead these days. He's much better throwing play action when the defense is expecting run. Niner fans cringe when AS has to make a pass on 3rd down and the defense is expecting pass. Excluding the recent game against AZ, he's almost never successful in those situations.

    AS has a very different style than many of the elite QBs. AS won't throw the ball unless he sees his guy coming open. Contrast that with Brett Favre who will throw into any window, no matter how small. Steve Young always says AS needs to "throw his receiver open." I think that AS just lacks the ability to read the defense after the play has started, leading to more timid, late throws. That could permanently prevent him from reaching the heights that today's elite QBs can reach.

  5. Max Power says:

    What about Vinny Testaverde? He had a few great seasons in his early 30's. Also, perhaps Rich Gannon fits the bill.

  6. Anonymous says:


  7. Anonymous says:

    Phil Somme, Eli Manning

  8. James says:

    Brady made a huge jump from borderline Pro Bowler from 2001-2006 to perennial league MVP candidate from 2007 on.

  9. bigmouth says:

    I think Ian nailed it.

  10. Topher Doll says:

    It's hard to truly gauge this though since QB's who may struggle on bad teams rarely get the chance to prove themselves with more talent around them. While it is clear that a QB's ability is a large reason for their success or failure. But it's a rare situation when a QB struggles for a specific number of seasons (3 seasons for example) and then get another similar time period on a more talented team (or a team with a scheme that fits him better, etc). You also have to keep in mind a QB will usually struggle early in his career compared to later so that would make it hard to say whether it's the increase in talent that lead to his improvement or whether it was his own development.

    In the end it's impossible to say what is "normal" QB development, slow and steady (most QB's), or what is caused by a scheme or talent change, huge jumps in production (the Alex Smith's and Rich Gannon's of the league).

    The hardest part may be looking at the untrackable, skill set. Take a quarterback like Sam Bradford, who for anyone watching him might be reminded of a young Tom Brady (2001-2004) in terms of skill set and strengths and weaknesses, but because of the shear difference in talent and scheme, the results between the two QB's varies wildly.

    It might be a worthwhile study to look at the development of QB's over the past two decades to see if you could chart the average development chart of a QB and then break that chart down by looking at teams with more of less talent, which QB's saw huge growth in the middle or late parts of their career, as well as other categories to try and find trends.

    One thing you didn't mention is the fall of a QB rapidly in the middle of his career. The rise of a QB rapidly, while rare, does happen, but the opposite holds true as well, so tracking that might be important as well.

    Overall a few examples I've found of those QB's who rise or fall rapidly that coincides with a team, coaching or talent change, includes, just from a half hours worth of study:

    *Now these aren't all from bums to Pro Bowlers, but looking at their statistics, they either say a large change*

    - Kyle Orton: Improvement Chicago->Denver (Scheme, coaching and talent upgrade)
    - Drew Brees: Improvement SD->NO (Scheme, coaching upgrade)
    - Randall Cunningham: Improvement Minn->Philly (Scheme, coaching, talent upgrade)
    - John Elway: Improvement Reeves/Phillips (Coaching, talent upgrade)
    - Michael Vick: Improvement Atlanta->Philly (Coaching, scheme, talent upgrade)

    Just a short list of players who saw a big change based on a change in their coaching, scheme or surrounding talent.

    I do agree it's rare, but not that rare. I just think circumstances make it hard to separate QB's from outside control such as opportunity, talent, scheme and coaching. A lot depends on the chances a player is given.

  11. Dan says:

    I still buy into the standard timeline. 2005 he was a rookie, and 2007 he was playing hurt (half his games came after he injured his throwing shoulder, and they were awful). 2006, 2009, and 2010 were the real Alex Smith - a mediocre QB with an EPA/play between -0.05 and 0 (his pre-injury 2007 numbers were about the same). 2011 and 2012 have been a different Alex Smith, with an EPA/play over 0.05.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Coaching matters.

    Singletary was a horrible coach who didn't think the QB position was more important than any other position, who didn't bother to hire particularly competent or creative offensive coaches, and who insisted upon a predictable and outdated offensive approach.

    Contrast that to Harbaugh, who understands the importance of the QB position and can teach it, who has competent and creative offensive coaches on staff, and who while also favoring a power-running offense, employs schemes and gameplans that never want for creativity.

  13. James says:

    The problem with the standard timeline is how nearly identical Smith's 2010 was with his 2011. How can coaching be the difference when his comp%, YPA, TD%, Yard per Catch, and Net YPA are nearly identical with two different sets of coaches? The only significant differences were his INT% (regressed back to normal in 2012) and his sack rate that went up and has stayed up.

  14. Nick Bradley says:

    Eh. Alex Smith was on his way to becoming a quality NFL QB under Norv Turner. Norv left, a lousy OC in Jim Hostler came in. Alex Dislocated his shoulder in week 4, was forced to play with a damaged shoulder by Mike Nolan, and tore his non-throwing shoulder the following preseason.

    He came back in 2009, under Jimmy Raye (!), doing OK. Raye was fired a month into 2010, replaced by Mike Johnson, who is out of the NFL now. In comes Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman.

    As a 49er fan, I don't think Alex Smith is a bust, and I don't think he should have been the #1 overall pick. * However, I do think he was first-round talent and looks like a first-round talent guy.

  15. Anonymous says:

    The main difference is WHEN in 2010 he became a quality starter. Basically, the "We Want Carr" game against the Eagles was the point he stopped pressing. He's said this himself in interviews. And when one looks at his stats since that game they are quite good:

    33 Games, 902 Att, 576 Comp, 6638 Yards, 45 Tds, 13 INTs, 96.58 QB Rating.

    Another factor in him being given further chances is his age. He was drafted at age 20 in April 2005, and turned 28 in May 2012. Compare this to Browns rookie QB, who is 7 months OLDER than Smith. Weeden will not get as many chances to resurrect his career if it goes south.

    As for playing from behind - true that he doesn't need to as much right now with his team, but he's led comebacks before, such as the Eagles and Lions games last year. Amd those were on the road.

  16. Anonymous says:

    Jim Plunkett struggled for 8 years and then won 2 Super Bowls. As far as Alex Smith not being able to bring a team back, he was 2nd in the league last year with 6 Game winning drives and comebacks which is one less then the single season record.

  17. Brad says:

    I disagree with the folks saying Brees was a late bloomer... By his 3rd season as more than a benchwarmer in SD (i.e. 2004), he was really coming on as a pretty good QB. By his 4th, he was playing really good football.

    He came on a bit slow, but not enough that I'd call him a late bloomer. And he'd probably still be there today if:

    1) SD hadn't dropped a HUGE chunk of money on Philip Rivers.
    2) He hadn't gotten injured at the end of 2005.

    He was playing well enough in 2004-2005 that I don't think a lot of SD fans were screaming for Rivers, but with the amount of money spent and a pretty significant injury to Brees (that nobody was sure what he'd be if he'd even be able to come back from it), their decision became very easy.

    Brees made a solid progression through his career, but I don't think he was a "bust" early. He went from good to great, not from bum to great.

  18. Jim Glass says:

    "Who are other late bloomers?"

    Eli Manning had 0.00 EPA/p his fourth year, in his fifth he finally got up to 0.10, about average. Since then he's been really pretty good.

    Jets fans continue to hold out hope for Sanchez.

    But not much because you're right, few have improved from really below par for four full years to solidly above par. Eli's an outlier. But outliers happen.

  19. Anonymous says:

    Kurt Warner!!

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