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As the 49ers head into the playoffs, it's important to get a read on Alex Smith and the Niners' offense. I phoned a former longtime offensive coordinator in the NFL for his insight. He requested anonymity so I will call him Expert.

Q: What does Alex Smith do well?

Expert: He's a very bright guy. He's done a good job of minimizing mistakes and always trying to keep the offense in the right play or protection. You get the feeling his mind is processing everything while he's playing the game, almost to the point that he loses the ability to improvise because he does such a high degree of analysis. He tries to measure everything: &‘How far open is he?'

You can scrutinize to death. A lot of guys just make the throw. In some respects it's good to be a high IQ quarterback. But if you get to the point where you are too measured, too rote, too cautious, that's not good.

Jim Harbaugh runs a tight ship. Jim pre-thinks what the gains and losses could be. Alex Smith plays that way. That's why he's been so successful this year. He can minimize the opportunity for a defense to outfox the offense. Jim has tied his offense to the quality of his defense and kicking game. He's constrained offensively. It's not a high-risk offense. The effectiveness of his defense and kicking games spurred him to be even more conservative offensively.

Q: How well has Harbaugh done with Smith?

Expert: For him to play to this level and for Jim to harness this in spite of the lockout is a remarkable job. It speaks admirably of Jim and his staff.

Q: When people think of the 49ers quarterbacks, they think of Joe Montana, Steve Young. But Bill Walsh had make-do guys before them, like Steve DeBerg. Is Smith a make-do guy?

Expert: If the 49ers continue to have a great kicking game and a great defense, and upgrade their secondary, they can afford to be more conservative on offense. They can stay in that mindset because they won't have to play a high-risk style. Here are some important statistics. Alex Smith has the fewest interceptions of any starting quarterback who's played the whole season — five.

But he has the most sacks of any starting quarterback, 44. He has issues with protection and, as methodical and mechanical as he is, he tries to the make perfect play. He takes sacks because he doesn't throw the ball away. When I look at the 49er offense, Smith is 20th in pass attempts, 11th in pass-completion percentage and 19th in passing yards. The 49ers are near the bottom in the big play. Their longest pass play was 56 yards pass (third from last), and their longest run was 55 (No. 17). Their whole game is played so tight. They don't have big-play explosion.

Think of how methodical their drives are. They can't score in a minute and 25 seconds. They don't have a wide out who can make that kind of play. They've got to control the tempo of the game. So they must earn every scoring opportunity. It's like they're traveling by Pony Express and other teams travel by supersonic transport.

I want to come back to the 44 sacks. There was study in the NFL that showed any series in which you have a sack, the opportunity to score a touchdown drops to one in 14, a little over 7 percent. I'd be surprised if many drives with a sack result in a TD. If you get a holding penalty, you lose yardage but the down goes over. If you get sacked, you lose yards and the down. That's key. Smith takes too many sacks.

Q: Can Smith make all the throws?

Expert: You're asking the wrong question. It's not if he can. But will he? If he doesn't think it's sure-fire, he won't throw it. Brett Favre and Drew Brees will take the shot. Some quarterbacks think, &‘You're supposed to be an all-star receiver, you make play.' There are more great catches than throws. If a quarterback waits until a guy is a lock to be wide open, those throws would be few and far between.

If the 49ers had better wide receivers, Smith might have a better opportunity for his receivers to go get it, to go make catches for him. Part of his reticence could be who is on the other end as the intended receiver. Last year I wouldn't throw anything at Michael Crabtree. He wasted a whole season. He was a dog.

This season 49ers were 23rd in the NFL in total first downs with 282. New Orleans was first with 416. The 49ers were next-to-last in third-down conversions at 29.4 percent, not even 3 of ten. Can you imagine they still finished 13-3? Jim has done a great job analyzing what he has and designing his offense around what it can do.

Q: Can the 49ers go deep in the playoffs with that style of offense?

Expert: No, not with that style of offense. But with their kicking game and defense and not turning the ball over, yes. But not with that offense alone. If it becomes a shoot-out with their third-down percentage and lack of chunk plays, they are at a disadvantage.

Who is their big-play, go-to receiver? Vernon Davis is probably one at his position. He has the ability to go deep and get the matchups he wants against a strong safety. How many strong safeties are good enough to cover him man to man?

You've got to have receivers who make defenders worry about covering the field horizontally and goal line to goal line. If they don't fear your receivers can run by them, they won't respect you. You've got to put the fear of God in them that you can run by them. Ted Ginn is not a real wide receiver. He's more of a gadget guy. They have not developed him on the vertical concept.

Q: How would you characterize the relationship between Smith and Harbaugh?

Expert: Smith analyzes, but he's asked to analyze. He gives Harbaugh the feeling of having a coach on the field. They have a relationship on the headset. Jim can talk to him until 15 seconds are left on the play clock. It's like having a mentor talk you through — &‘I'll give you this play. If it's not there, dump it down.' He prefaces each play with coaching points.

Q: Will Smith be the starting quarterback next season?

Expert: He's got to be, for sure. He's earned the right.

For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at cohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at lowell.cohn@pressdemocrat.com.