In the NFL of 2011, games most often turn into high-scoring shootouts with quarterbacks on both sides throwing for hundreds of yards.
Yet the San Francisco 49ers have won five of their first six games this season using an old formula of defense, running the ball and trying to win the takeaway-giveaway battle.
At least one successful former NFL coach, Brian Billick, wonders if that formula can be successful in the long run.
Billick, who led the Baltimore Ravens to a Super Bowl championship, wrote a column on NFL.com Thursday that both praised the 49ers while exposing what he sees as a weakness.
“In a quarterback-driven league where 300-yard games are becoming the norm, it’s refreshing to see a team winning the old fashion way of playing great defense and running the ball,” Billick wrote. “It is the same formula my Ravens used to win a Super Bowl title in 2000. Unfortunately for the 49ers, they are going to eventually need Alex Smith to win a couple of games with his arm.”
Billick noted that when the Ravens won their title, the NFL was in a low period for great quarterbacks. Today, the league is full of skillful veterans and young stars.
“We were a few years away from the emergence of the great quarterbacks of today,” he writes.
Billick said Smith has yet to prove he can win a “track meet” by using all his skill players – such as Frank Gore, Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree and Braylon Edwards (when he returns) – to outscore another team if the 49ers defense isn’t stopping an opponent.
“Smith has to prove he can orchestrate that skill group to get it done,” Billick writes. “I’m not saying that he can’t, but he just hasn’t yet.”
While Smith has produced in the clutch, leading three comeback victories on the road against the Bengals, Eagles and Lions, Billick’s point seems valid. Smith hasn’t yet been asked to take over a game with his arm. In six games, he’s thrown just 158 passes, just over 26 per game, the 25th-lowest total in the league. Eleven QBs have thrown more than 200 times already.
But Smith has been efficient. His quarterback rating of 95.2 is eighth best in the NFL, and he’s thrown just two interceptions against eight TD passes.
As the San Francisco Chronicle’s Eric Branch noted Thursday: “Smith has been clutch. He has been dependable. Every now and then, he has been spectacular.”
Greg Cosell, an NFL Films analyst, agrees in part with Billick, saying the 49ers are “playing the games to minimize his impact on the game.”
“They’re trying to hide him,” Cosell said on KNBR Thursday, as reported by the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. “They’re trying to minimize his impact on the game. And that’s great. Do you know what that’s called? Coaching.”