Smith-Newton fun, but what about facts?

May, 29, 2012
5/29/12
10:45
AM ET
One more item on this Alex Smith-Cam Newton thing, and some will say the story has played out. Wait, too late for that.

"Can't believe this is still a big story," niners4life12 wrote in the comments of our Monday item.

Big story? Nope. Fun story? Yep.

Educational one? Not yet, but we can make it one with assists from the NFC West mailbag and ESPN Stats & Information.

Dan from Salt Lake City read Smith's comments and wanted to see winning percentages for 300-yard passers.

"Is it true that if you are throwing for more than 300 yards in a game, your odds of winning become significantly less?" Dan asks.

Not in the increasingly pass-happy NFL, it turns out.

Teams with 300-yard passers have gone 180-141 over the past three seasons, according to Jeremy Mills of ESPN Stats & Information. That includes 132-93 in games featuring a single 300-yard passer. Forty-eight other games featured two 300-yard passers, and in those, the QBs with fewer yards went 29-19, affirming the adage that losing teams pass to keep pace.

These won-lost records, displayed in the chart, mesh with NFL trends in recent seasons. Teams are relying more heavily on the passing game by choice, not just when falling behind. Pass-oriented teams are winning.

The 49ers excused themselves from the trend last season. They joined the Jacksonville Jaguars as the only NFL teams without a 300-yard passer. One question this season is whether the 49ers' emphasis on adding offensive weapons -- Randy Moss, Mario Manningham, A.J. Jenkins and LaMichael James are among the newcomers -- will produce a more aggressive approach offensively.

The NFC West in general hasn't caught on to the proactive passing trend.

The Seattle Seahawks went 0-2 when producing a 300-yard passer, with Tarvaris Jackson racking up yardage while playing from behind against Atlanta and Cincinnati. The St. Louis Rams were also 0-2 with a 300-yard passer, losing to the Giants and Green Bay by wide margins even though Sam Bradford combined for 659 yards in those games.

The Arizona Cardinals were 3-0 with a 300-yard passer (2-0 with John Skelton, 1-0 with Kevin Kolb). They prevailed in two of those games -- against Carolina in the opener and against Cleveland in Week 15 -- thanks largely to clutch punt returns from Patrick Peterson.

This was not a division marked by freewheeling passing attacks, in other words.

Smith came closest to 300 yards during the 2011 regular season with a 291-yard game against Philadelphia. The 49ers fell behind by 20 points in that game before rallying for a 24-23 victory. The Eagles' Michael Vick passed for 416 yards and lost what was, by any measure, a strange game. Smith did not throw for all those yards by design. He did so the old-fashioned way: out of necessity.

It was fitting, I thought, when Smith passed for 299 yards instead of 300 or more during the 49ers' playoff victory over Drew Brees (462 yards) and the New Orleans Saints. Again, that game was a strange one. It featured Smith running 28 yards for a critical touchdown. But the 49ers did take a more aggressive approach to offense at various points, including on Smith's 49-yard touchdown strike to Vernon Davis.

The 49ers proved all season that dominating defense and special teams could carry a limited offense to the brink of a Super Bowl.

Smith This is the honest truth: I could absolutely care less on yards per game. I think that's a totally overblown stat. Because if you're losing games in the second half, guess what? You're like the Carolina Panthers and you're going no-huddle the entire second half and, yeah, Cam Newton threw for a lot of 300-yard games, that's great. You're not winning, though.

-- 49ers QB Alex Smith
Smith's comment about 300-yard games being overrated was consistent with the 49ers' experience. San Francisco went 3-1 during the regular season when the opposing passer reached 300 yards, beating Vick, Ben Roethlisberger (330 yards) and Eli Manning (311). Dallas' Tony Romo needed overtime to reach 345 yards as the Cowboys overcame a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit to win at Candlestick Park in Week 2.

Of course, Smith was not addressing every team that had a 300-yard passer recently. He was referring specifically to the Carolina Panthers "going no-huddle the entire second half" and not winning much even though Newton "threw for a lot of 300-yard games."

This is where Smith erred. Newton finished his rookie season with only three 300-yard games, all in the first four weeks of the season.

The Panthers were 0-3 in those games, each decided by seven or fewer points. Carolina allowed a punt return for a touchdown in two of those defeats. That could help explain why the Panthers needed Newton to pass for so many yards. Newton did what he had to do to keep his team competitive.

Meanwhile, Smith benefited from the 49ers' dominant special teams, including when Ted Ginn Jr. scored on two return touchdowns against Seattle in Week 1.

The 49ers ranked 31st in third-down conversion rate (the Panthers were 10th). Their touchdown percentage in the red zone fell to 40.7, the lowest for a 49ers team since 2005 (the Panthers were at 57.9 percent, seventh-best in the NFL and the highest rate for a Carolina team since 2005).

Newton, who also rushed for 706 yards and 14 touchdowns, was often carrying his offense up a hill and falling just short. Smith was often guiding his offense down a hill and succeeding. Both did what they had to do.

Smith was correct when he downplayed yards per game as a measure for QB play. But we already knew that wasn't always a reliable guide. The NFL hasn't determined its passing champ by yardage since 1937.

Still, a spike in passing yardage for the 49ers could be a welcome development, provided it reflected the additional opportunities that come with converting more consistently on third down.

That's something we can all agree upon.

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