Alex Smith and a slick football turned out to be a terrible combo in the NFC championship last year. Word from Vegas: This man, barring injury, has the best odds of taking the next two steps and hoisting the Lombardi Trophy this season.
This is confounding, and not because of the fallacy that quarterback wins are equivalent to quarterback quality.
In January’s NFC title loss to the Giants, Smith’s attempts to go deep in inclement conditions were embarrassing. This difficulty, which might be partially attributed to relatively small hands for an NFL starting quarterback — not the end-all-be-all but bigger, stronger throwing hand helps — led to just one wide receiver completion in a playoff contest that stretched the length of about five quarters. Another huge factor, albeit understandable because it worked during the regular season, was a super-conservative approach to targeting well-covered receivers.
Many factors certainly played a part, but the end result is what it is: 12 for 26, 196 yards and, most importantly, didn’t put the Giants away with the many chances he had. His two touchdowns and most of the yards weren’t due to impressive plays on his part either, both times just hitting Vernon Davis on a decent throw and the freak-athlete taking it the rest of the way.
The late heroics against New Orleans in the divisional round were admirable, but let’s not confuse it with Smith taking a leap as an NFL passer. The most epic play he made was a long touchdown RUN, the other that strong throw to Davis for the game-winner — latter which there’s no reason to pick apart. But also no reason to think that a team quarterbacked by Alex Smith is a sensible favorite for the Super Bowl in this day and age.
This Niners defense is great, and maybe in the previous millennium I wouldn’t have any qualms with these NFL-best 4/1 odds at the MGM.
But any evaluation of the league’s quarterbacks that places Rodgers, Brees, Manning, young Manning, Brady, Stafford, Cutler, Roethlisberger, Rivers, Romo, Newton, Ryan or Schaub in front of Smith is automatically invalidated… and there are even more I would rank ahead of Smith.
So when’s the last time a team won the Super Bowl without a Top 10 QB? You could argue Ben Roethlisberger in 2005-2006 (only in his second year, though he obviously had the physical tools of a Top 10er and flashed them quite often even by that point). Going further back, you get to arguably Brad Johnson in 2003-2004 and definitely Trent Dilfer in 2000-2001.
So that’s only one team who’s done it without one of the league’s top quarterbacks since the rule changes following the 2004 playoffs, which really greased the slopes toward a QB-driven league. Teams just don’t win the Super Bowl anymore with conservative quarterback play and Smith has yet to prove he can consistently open up that offense when he needs to — like he needed to on that rainy day in late January.
In 2001 it would be different, but in 2012 it’s just hard to buy the 49ers at 4/1.