That sequence from Week 5 last season was a defining one for the 2010 49ers.
Smith encountered similar circumstances Sunday. Sensing pressure against the Washington Redskins, he rolled toward the left sideline and gathered himself to throw. He brought the ball back to begin the throwing motion just as the Redskins' Ryan Kerrigan delivered a big hit Smith never saw coming.
The difference this time: Smith held onto the ball. There would be no momentum-turning fumble return for the other team. I'm not sure how much credit Smith deserves for that result. Kerrigan appeared to drive the ball back into Smith's body. But the result was obviously better, and that is what mattered for the 49ers. They are 7-1 this season after dropping to 0-5 last season with that defeat to the Eagles.
Ends justify means in the NFL, but that doesn't mean the 49ers' opponents fear Smith the way they fear other quarterbacks with winning records and lofty NFL passer ratings. The fact that the 49ers have less reason to fear Smith largely explains why the team is doing so well with him behind center, in my view.
Eight other quarterbacks have winning records and NFL passer ratings of at least 90. All eight significantly outrank Smith in Total QBR, which reflects how much quarterbacks affect their teams' chances for winning on a play-by-play basis. All eight have far more passing yards, a higher average per attempt, more touchdown passes, far more first downs and considerably more long completions.
This confirms what we should know from watching games. Most of the other eight quarterbacks -- Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Matthew Stafford, Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Schaub and Ryan Fitzpatrick -- have proven themselves to be better than Smith. NFL teams have said as much by rewarding those other eight quarterbacks with sizable long-term contracts.
With Smith's deal expiring at year's end, his contract situation will need addressing.
If the 49ers continue on their current course, they'll have a first-round playoff bye, which could actually work against Smith by depriving him of a likely postseason victory. Still, given that the 49ers have proven they can win with Smith, they would presumably want him back.
Of those eight other quarterbacks mentioned above, Fitzpatrick compares to Smith more closely than the others. He's known more for being bright and managing games than for dominating them by carrying the offense.
But Fitzpatrick, who signed a six-year deal worth $59 million earlier this season, does outrank Smith by a wide margin in Total QBR, 61.6 to 42.8 (with 50 being average). Most of the difference stems from the sacks Smith has taken. But Smith has taken only five sacks over the 49ers' last four games, down from 14 over their previous three. And he does own the highest single-game QBR score in the NFL this season, a 98.2 out of 100 for his efforts during a 48-3 victory over Tampa Bay.
All things to consider while evaluating where quarterback play factors into the 49ers' success. It's an important question for the 49ers as they determine how much to value Smith and how to proceed at the position in the future. In the meantime, they can be thankful Fitzpatrick wasn't their quarterback Sunday. The Bills' starter finished his team's game with a 2.9 QBR, lowest among 26 qualifying quarterbacks Sunday.
The chart shows QBR scores for NFC West quarterbacks by week and for the season.
2011 NFC West: Total QBR (0-100 scale, with 50 being average)
Quick thoughts on how NFC West passers graded out in Week 9 according to Total QBR, with NFL passer ratings in parenthesis as a reference point:
John Skelton, Cardinals (53.9 QBR, 85.7 NFL rating): Skelton completed 20 of 35 passes for 222 yards with one touchdown, no interceptions, three sacks and one fumble (recovered by Arizona) during the Cardinals' 19-13 overtime victory against St. Louis. He became the first quarterback since Rodgers in 2008 to take two safeties in one game, but he also threw the tying touchdown pass in the final five minutes of regulation. He also received some credit for yardage gained through an illegal contact penalty against the Rams during the tying drive.
Sam Bradford, Rams (46.1 QBR, 73.3 NFL rating): Bradford completed 23 of 36 passes for 255 yards with no touchdowns, one interception, four sacks, no fumbles and a 2-yard gain on his only rushing attempt. He added a modest 2.8 expected points, according to the QBR formula. The division-high 1.4 clutch rating in the chart below reflects game situations, not how well Bradford performed in them. The column for "clutch weight average" reflects the significance of game situations defined by score, time remaining, etc.
Alex Smith, 49ers (44.5 QBR, 109.7 NFL rating): Smith completed 17 of 24 passes for 200 yards with one touchdown, no interceptions, two sacks and no fumbles during the 49ers' 19-11 victory at Washington. He ran four times for 9 yards, gaining 8 of those yards on a first-and-10 carry during a drive to a field goal. His passing added a modest 3.6 expected points to the 49ers' total. Sacks and penalties offset most of that. In the end, Smith added 1.1 total expected points on a modest 32 plays.
Tarvaris Jackson, Seahawks (25.9 QBR, 40.4 NFL rating): Jackson completed 17 of 30 passes for 221 yards with no touchdowns, three interceptions, one sack, no fumbles and two carries covering 3 yards during the Seahawks' 23-13 defeat at Dallas. He was the only quarterback in the division with a negative total for expected points, this despite the positive contribution he made in drawing an interference penalty against the Cowboys with a heads-up scramble and throw.
The chart below shows how quarterbacks from games involving NFC West teams fared in Total QBR for Week 9. Dallas' Tony Romo ranked third among all NFL quarterbacks for his performance against Seattle, while Washington's John Beck ranked 24th, lower than any player involved in a game featuring an NFC West team.