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Monday, January 2, 2012
QBR ranks: Smith, Skelton step up

By Mike Sando

NFC West quarterbacks took a beating in 2011 -- not just with the 203 sacks they absorbed, either.

We've heard the criticisms and levied them from time to time. Alex Smith is a merely game manager, John Skelton lacks accuracy, Kevin Kolb lacks pocket awareness, Tarvaris Jackson doesn't produce well enough in the clutch, etc.

Alex Smith
Alex Smith had the highest QBR in the division for the 2011 regular season.
The position was more asset than liability within the division Sunday. Smith, Skelton and the St. Louis Rams' Kellen Clemens made key plays and generally avoided critical errors. Smith and Clemens even scrambled for touchdowns. They stood high above the Seattle Seahawks' Tarvaris Jackson in Total QBR for Week 17.

Skelton's performance in victory over Seattle gave him the highest single-game QBR for a Cardinals quarterback (69.7) since Kurt Warner scored a 75.1 against the Rams in Week 16 of the 2009 season. That was enough to move Skelton past Jackson for second behind Smith in QBR for the 2011 season.

What does it all mean?

QBR measures how quarterbacks affect their teams' win probability on a play-by-play basis, taking into account contributions related to passing, rushing, sacks, penalties and fumbles. It would have us believe that NFC West quarterbacks played well occasionally, but their contributions over the full season fell short of the 50-point score representing average. I would generally agree.

The first chart below suggests Smith has picked up his play recently, posting scores in the 70s for three weeks running, and 67.7 or higher six times in the last eight games. Smith's NFL passer rating (90.7) ranked ninth in the NFL. His QBR ranked 22nd largely because the 49ers added relatively few expected points through passing, and because Smith ranked last in expected point lost to sacks.

Smith has taken five sacks over his last three games after taking 18 over the previous three. The 49ers have not committed a turnover in their last five games.

The key for Smith, in my view, will be transitioning away from turnover avoidance through sacks (avoiding interceptions at all costs) and moving toward completing passes against pressure. We have seen that on occasion recently.

I've shaded the chart to show single-game scores in the 60s or higher. For reference, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees scored in the 80s over the full 2011 season. Any full-season score in the mid-60s represents Pro Bowl-caliber production.

Quick thoughts on how NFC West passers graded out in Week 17 according to Total QBR, with NFL passer ratings in parenthesis as a reference point:
The clutch-weight average column reflects game situations, not how well players performed during those situations. Any clutch average above 1.0 reflects a quarterback performing in higher-pressure situations.