Niners quarterback Alex Smith completed 18 of 19 throws vs. the Cardinals Monday night. (Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images)
Even when Alex Smith wins, he loses.
Even in the afterglow of his outstanding performance Monday night against the Cardinals, the 49ers quarterback remains a target of critics.
While most observers were heaping praise on the San Francisco quarterback after his remarkable showing in a 24-3 victory over the Cardinals in Arizona, CBS Sports’ National NFL Insider Mike Freeman wasn’t buying into the hype.
Though Smith completed 18-of-19 passes for 232 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions as the 49ers improved to 6-2 this season – and 19-5 over the past two regular seasons with him at quarterback – Freeman saw Smith’s performance as just more evidence that he’s just one cog in an efficient offense.
After seemingly shedding the “game manager label” with his play in last season’s playoffs and earlier this season, Smith was tagged with it again by Freeman.
“Smith is a game manager, and in today’s NFL, game manager is a four-letter word,” wrote Freeman. “This is the harsh truth: the 49ers are managing Smith, containing him, putting him in a protective bubble of dinks and dunks because they know that if they open up the offense like, say, the way the great teams with the elite do, Smith would implode like a dead star.”
Freeman watched Smith against the Cardinals and game away unimpressed, saying that Smith’s throws were mostly short, averaging just over five yards.
“This is not eliteness,” he wrote. “This is petite-ness. The 49ers are playing small ball and that can work against scrubs like the Cardinals, but the reason San Francisco has difficulty sometimes against the true elite like the Giants is because New York has a real quarterback who can sling the ball anywhere on the field with great accuracy.”
Freeman’s argument is that as good as the 49ers might play in the regular season, they’re due for a fall in the playoffs because Smith won’t be able to put the offense on his back.
“Anyone that believes the 49ers can game-manage their way to a Super Bowl title, I have some gobble, gobble turkey for you,” he writes, using a phrase uttered by Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh this week.
Smith had gone into Monday night’s game in a two-game mini slump, following a three-interception day in a loss to the Giants and a win over the Seahawks in which he threw an interception and didn’t look sharp.
Though Smith said a sprained middle finger on his throwing hand suffered in the Giants game had no impact on his passing, some wondered if it did. Other observers wondered if Smith had lost his confidence.
Yet against Arizona, Smith was almost perfect and the 49ers were dominating.
After that win, Jim Harbaugh said those who questioned Smith’s confidence or skill level were off base.
“I don’t think there was ever a question there,” he told reporters. “I think it’s just a lot of gobble, gobble turkey from jive turkey gobblers. That paints a pretty good picture of it.”
Smith, too, said he never lost his confidence.
“It was in my closet,” he told Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle. “I found it. It was in there.”
Going into the team’s bye week, Smith is fourth in the NFL’s quarterback rankings, at 102.1, behind Peyton Manning (109.0), Aaron Rodgers (107.9) and Matt Ryan (103.0). It’s true he doesn’t throw as many passes as many of the top QBs in the league – he ranks 27th in attempts – but is No. 1 in completion percentage (69.4).
Smith does what he’s been asked to do, and has come up big late in game the past two years.
When Smith was asked after Monday’s Cardinals game if his critics would ever stop pointing out perceived flaws in his game, it was as if he pointed to the scoreboard and team record.
“At this point I don’t really care,” Smith told Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee. “If you had asked me that a few years ago, maybe. But at this point I don’t really care. I’m only about winning, and the guys in the locker room know what I am about. That’s all that really matters.”