Polls: Should NFC West fear Kolb, Smith?

January, 4, 2012
1/04/12
5:39
PM ET
One way to evaluate a strategic decision is to view it from opponents' perspectives.

Would a rival fear the decision or possibly even endorse it?

That lens can help us view more clearly the decisions Arizona and San Francisco face regarding their incumbent quarterbacks.

The Cardinals will most likely pay a $7 million bonus to Kevin Kolb, giving him another chance in 2012. The 49ers will most likely re-sign Alex Smith to a deal that makes him the starter for at least another season.

These are relatively straightforward decisions. Fans in Arizona might question whether or not Kolb can be better than backup John Skelton. Smith's harshest critics can find fault with him even as the 49ers head to the playoffs with a 13-3 record and the NFC's second seed.

But by all accounts, Kolb and Smith are coming back in the absence of superior alternatives. How should their opponents feel? Let's head to the polls. First, be sure to check out your handy voter's guide.

Kolb fear factor

The Cardinals' opponents have to feel good about Arizona going though another season with Kolb and Skelton as the primary quarterbacks. Both quarterbacks showed promise at times, but neither demonstrated consistency.

Coach Ken Whisenhunt has said he'll promote competition. Skelton has done enough to push Kolb for the job, at least. But the money Kolb is making requires the Cardinals to find out for sure whether or not they can win with him.

Arizona went 1-6 with Kolb to open the season. The team won his final two starts, but Kolb hardly played in one of them, leaving Skelton as the quarterback of record for the team's 21-19 victory over San Francisco.

In fairness to Kolb, Skelton benefited from an improved defense later in the season. It's a stretch to say the Cardinals would have been appreciably better than 1-6 had Skelton started to open the season. It's also unfair to Skelton if we assume Kolb would have performed as well late in games.

Either way, the rest of the NFC West can live with a Kolb-Skelton combination for 2012, in my view.

Smith fear factor

The 49ers are 16-5 in Smith's past 21 starts. Smith has 25 touchdown passes with six interceptions during that span. Every team in the NFC West would take that production.

At the very least, opponents should fear the 49ers with Smith at quarterback based simply on those results.

Skeptics persist.

NFL Films analyst Greg Cosell differentiates Smith from most other playoff quarterbacks, explaining how the 49ers have won without leaning on him much.

ESPN's quarterback evaluation metric, Total QBR, has given Smith high marks most of the time recently. But Smith's season-long performance score lags below average. This seemed strange given the 49ers' five fourth-quarter comeback victories. Any stat rewarding QBs for improving win probability would seemingly have to like those results.

But as Alok Pattani of ESPN's analytics team explained, the comeback against the New York Giants was from only one point behind. Another featured two field goals from David Akers. The one at Philadelphia required a missed Eagles field-goal try, Frank Gore's strong running and the fumble Justin Smith forced on Jeremy Maclin.

"It's not just the winning and losing, but how much Smith contributed to the winning at the time of the game where the result was most likely to be decided," Pattani said.

Also, Smith's four lowest-rated games counted toward his season-long score more than his six highest-rated games based on how many plays were involved and whether or not the outcomes were in serious doubt.

OK, all done. Time to vote.

Note: I've excluded St. Louis and Seattle from this discussion because those teams' quarterback situations are different. The Rams' Sam Bradford is under contract for the long term. The Seahawks' Tarvaris Jackson is under contract for backup money as the team considers long-term options through the draft.

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