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Saturday, December 26, 2009
Mailbag: 49ers' Smith in perspective

By Mike Sando
ESPN.com

Julian from the Bay Area writes: As a glass-half-full kinda 49er fan it seems that Alex Smith has made some decent strides this season advancing his play level, especially after the past few years of not playing and being injured -- not to mention all the offensive coordinators and even perhaps the team he was dealt to play with.

I think his numbers have been bordering on above average since he has been installed this season. Can you pull up and compare stats on other No. 1 pick QBs, along with their team records and stats from the season before they arrived? I think the stats should show some relativity to the teams' performance and not so much the QB's ability.

Mike Sando: NFL teams have drafted 17 quarterbacks No. 1 overall since 1970. Eleven of the 17 have thrown more touchdown passes than interceptions. Smith, David Carr, Tim Couch, JaMarcus Russell, Matthew Stafford and Jim Plunkett have not or did not.

The way Smith performed as a rookie in 2005 isn't so relevant right now. The way he is performing in 2009 is not relevant compared to how other No. 1 overall draft choices played as rookies or when taking over as starters for the first time. But I think we can make some progress by using age as a key variable.

Smith has completed 60 percent of his passes with 16 touchdowns, 12 interceptions and a 78.5 rating in two quarters against Houston and eight subsequent starts. To put Smith's performances in some perspective, I used Pro Football Reference to generate a list showing season stats since 1980 for quarterbacks age 25 or younger with at least 300 attempts (Smith, 25, has attempted 313 passes this season). The list shows 51 seasons featuring higher passer ratings than Smith's current rating for 2009.

The 49ers are 3-5 in the games Smith has started this season. They will probably be 5-5 in games he has started once this season ends. Shaun Hill was 2-0 as a starter in 2007, 5-3 as a starter in 2008 and 3-3 as a starter this season. That works out to 10-6 overall with diminishing returns.

It is possible for a young quarterback drafted in the first round to enjoy immediate success. The Steelers went 6-10 in 2003. They drafted Ben Roethlisberger in 2004. Roethlisberger went 13-0 as a rookie starter that year, then won the Super Bowl in his second season.

Smith looks better now than he has in the past. I would expect the 49ers to continue evaluating him through the offseason and next season. They should know by then whether Smith can take them where they want to go.


Josh from Seattle writes: I would first like to say I am a big fan and read your column daily under NFC West. I have recently read that the Seahawks are looking to hire someone for the president/general manager position. It is speculated that Mike Holmgren was not interested because the position did not give him complete control over certain decisions, mainly who the coach is. If this is true, then can Seattle really hope to entice someone with some real credibility and ability to change the direction of the franchise?

Mike Sando: The Seahawks aren't necessarily looking for someone to come in and make dramatic changes throughout the organization. At least they were not thinking that way when Tim Ruskell resigned as GM a few weeks ago. A disastrous finish to the season could conceivably lead them to reconsider, particularly when it comes to player personnel. Feedback from GM candidates also could shape their thinking.

Until then, though, it appears as though the Seahawks are looking for a strong personnel person to fit into their current structure. That is how CEO Tod Leiweke described the job when announcing Ruskell's resignation.

The concessions Seattle would have made for Holmgren likely would not apply to most other candidates.


Craig from Flagstaff writes: Mike, what has to happen for the Cards to host the first round of the playoffs?

Mike Sando: Consider it done. All division winners play at least one postseason game at home.


Michael writes via Facebook: That is really shocking that the Rams would be ahead in an offensive category over the Cardinals. Surprising statistic there, Sando.

Mike Sando: It's true. The Rams have made more big plays on offense than the Cardinals this season. So have 30 other teams. Unlike the Rams, though, the Cardinals can make important plays in the passing game with some consistency, and they can finish drives. Arizona leads the NFL in red-zone touchdown percentage. They might not be making big plays in terms of yardage, but they are scoring with efficiency when they get close. The Rams rank 31st in that category.