If you haven't kept up on this NFL season, what we're about to say is going to seem very funny: It's time to start seriously considering the possibility of Alex Smith winning a Super Bowl. Not as some sage backup for Andrew Luck on the Los Angeles Jaguars in 2016, or as the offensive coordinator for the 2032 London Topmen, but as the starting quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers. In 2011!
By all accounts, the 49ers as a team are for real. With a 2.5-game lead in the NFC West, Football Outsiders projects them to make the playoffs 99 percent of the time, the highest percentage for any NFL team. They're likely to be hosting a home playoff game as the NFC West champions, and it's entirely possible that they could end up as the top seed in the NFC, with a first-round bye and home field advantage throughout the playoffs. There's nothing in their performance record or their statistics suggesting that the 49ers are lucky to be 5-1, either.
As for our buddy Alex, though? This is rarified air. Of particular note is his interception rate (interceptions divided by pass attempts), which is at an impressive 1.3 percent. That's not only out of character for Smith, who has thrown interceptions on 3.5 percent of his passes during his career, it's out of character for any quarterback. If Smith were to finish the season with an interception rate that low, it would be the eighth-lowest figure in NFL history for a quarterback who started half of his team's games or more. That's not going to stick, but even if it doesn't, the rest of Smith's numbers suggest that he's playing at a level just slightly above league average. Smith's 6.9 yards per attempt are just below the going rate, but the fact that his interceptions are low and his completion percentage (63.3 percent) is above-average suggests that he's checking down frequently and playing conservative football.
So if Smith is just about a league-average quarterback after years of bumbling play, benchings, and injuries, and the 49ers have the kind of defense to shut down even the best attacks in football, we need to seriously wonder whether Smith will be going to Disneyland this February. And that raises a very interesting question: Would Alex Smith be the worst quarterback to ever win a Super Bowl? And whether he gets there or not, is Alex Smith likely to be a good enough quarterback to ever lead his team to a Super Bowl?
Big, tricky questions. First, we've got to look at every Super Bowl-winning quarterback in the context of their specific era. Smith's 95.2 passer rating is currently eighth in the league, but if we send Smith and that rating back to 1972, he would be in first place by more than 10 points. He's thrown 158 passes in six games, while the undefeated Dolphins team that won the Super Bowl in '72 had starting quarterbacks Earl Morrall and Bob Griese combine to throw 247 passes ... all season. We're in a passer-friendly era, so we'll mostly be using statistics that are relative to a league-average passer, thanks to the great work done by pro-football-reference.com. We'll quote their "index" stats here, which take a common statistic (like completion percentage) and, after comparing the player's performance to the league-average and adjusting for context, produce a statistic that's scaled relative to 100.
Smith's interception rate, for example, is the second-best figure in the league (behind Sam Bradford). His Int%+, the index statistic, is at 123. When he threw 11 picks in 165 attempts as a rookie, his Int% was 40. So 100 is average and the farther away from 100 you get, the more extreme the performance is. If you look Alex Smith's career performance, you can see how he's been below-average in virtually every statistic during every single season of his career. So even with this relatively effective 2011 season, there's still a very low bar we have to hit.
You don't need us to tell you that Joe Montana is a better quarterback than Alex Smith. Let's get past the obvious and compare Smith to those quarterbacks who would be in the discussion for worst Super Bowl winner ever. In reverse chronological order...
Eli Manning, 2007
While I'm a little terrified to disparage Grantland's favorite quarterback, people forget just how mediocre Manning was during the 2007 regular season, when he led the league in interceptions. During one particularly gruesome five-game stretch of the second half, Manning was 79-of-175 (45.1 percent) with four touchdowns and eight interceptions.
On the other hand, Eli had already produced an effective season as a downfield quarterback in 2005, when he had produced a season with league-average or better performance in yards per attempt, touchdown percentage, interception percentage, and sack rate. He was probably a slightly better quarterback at the time than Alex Smith is today.
Trent Dilfer, 2000
As a quarterback who spent virtually his entire career winning games alongside assorted dominant defenses, Dilfer is the patron saint of bad Super Bowl quarterbacks. He started his career at a level below even Smith's dismal performance; remember that Dilfer threw 33 interceptions against 17 touchdowns during his first three seasons as a pro.
Time has created the image of Dilfer as the ultimate "game manager", avoiding interceptions and playing conservative football, but he was never particularly accurate and only posted an Int%+ better than 100 once in his career. That season, in 1997, was better than anything Alex Smith has done as a pro. It took Dilfer to the Pro Bowl, and while that was a very friendly selection, it's clear that he was a better quarterback than Alex Smith when he won Super Bowl XXXV.
Doug Williams, 1987
Once an average starter for the Buccaneers, Williams took over for the Redskins when starter Jay Schroeder couldn't make it back from a shoulder injury. He only threw 143 passes, but he produced a brilliant 123 Y/A+(yards per attempt index) and was above-average across the board. He had a better career behind him than Smith currently does, and while it was a small sample, his performance in his Super Bowl year was better than what Smith's done currently. There's hardly a case for Smith being the better player.
Jim McMahon, 1985
McMahon's career collapsed after he shuffled his way to the Super Bowl with the Bears in 1985, but it was mostly due to injuries. He was a league-average passer virtually his entire career, and would have been in the Pro Bowl in 1984 if the NFC had taken more than two quarterbacks. His rookie season was comparable to Smith's 2011 season. This isn't even close.
Jim Plunkett, 1980
There are some similarities between Plunkett and Smith. They were both first overall picks who failed to develop initially before being benched. Smith's development also came with a new coach, while Plunkett's came with a new coach in a new city. Plunkett's Super Bowl season was also the first time he made it to the playoffs, but unlike Smith, he had posted yards per attempt and passer rating figures that were consistently above league-average before that Raiders run. So even Plunkett doesn't fit.
That should disqualify all of our candida...oh, we forgot one.
Terry Bradshaw, 1974
Terry Bradshaw? The Hall of Famer with four Super Bowl rings who knows Matthew McConaughey? Absolutely. The Terry Bradshaw you know now followed this Super Bowl run with eight consecutive years of above-average play before retiring. Up through 1974, though, Bradshaw was a below-average quarterback. His advanced statistical record contained one season that came close to average, 1972, but it rates out as similar to what Smith did during his 10 starts a year ago.
The clincher, though, is that Bradshaw was actually benched during the season in which he won the Super Bowl! As far as we can tell, no other quarterback has ever been benched and gone on to win the Super Bowl during the same season. Unless Mike Singletary somehow wrestles the head coaching job away from Jim Harbaugh in a coup d'etat, that appears unlikely to happen to Alex Smith, too. So we can say pretty comfortably that if the 49ers win the Super Bowl and Alex Smith is their quarterback, he won't be the worst starter to ever win the big game. That feat, surprisingly, belongs to Terry Bradshaw.
Previously from Bill Barnwell:
The Intricate Balance of Hedging Your Bet
The Cost of Carson and the Rest of the NFL Trading Deadline Deals
Welcome to The Fabulous & The Flops of the NFL
Beware the QB Change
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