If 49ers QB Alex Smith were in Philadelphia, he would have been chased out of town three years ago. After tossing a very uncatchable pass directly between two defenders, yet close to neither early in the fourth quarter with the Niners trailing the Eagles by two touchdowns on Sunday night, Smith got a taste of what life in Philadelphia might be like, as the crowd chanted, "We want (backup David) Carr" while Smith exited his home field.
Yes, San Francisco is now working with its sixth offensive coordinator in Smith's six years in the Bay Area. Yes, Smith has had to deal with more instability at the position than any other quarterback in the league. Yes, he has had to deal with shoulder surgery and nagging injuries that have sidetracked his career. And yes, he is playing behind a young, undisciplined offensive line that is still learning to play together.
Smith is very smart, hardworking and likable, and he has shown flashes when everything is right for him, as he did early in the 27-24 loss to Philadelphia Sunday night and late in the game after Mike Singletary boldly challenged him on the sideline. Smith responded to the challenge, bringing the Niners back within position to win the game in the final two minutes. He showed enough to make fans want to believe again.
But sandwiched in between, and capping it off with a game-ending interception, were too many bad decisions and flustered, off-the-mark, rag-arm throws that have become a staple of Smith's erratic performance throughout his career, as he has sought to regain the confidence that comes from playing behind a bad offensive line with revolving coordinators and varying terminology for far too long.
The Niners have explosive, downfield threats with the game's fastest tight end in Vernon Davis and one of the fastest receivers in Ted Ginn, not to mention a stable of running backs and creative, short-to-intermediate receivers who can make plays after the catch. There is enough talent for the Niners' offense to thrive. The missing piece in the offense has been, and continues to be, a bona fide, franchise quarterback — something the Niners have not had since the days when Eddie DeBartolo was still running the franchise nearly a decade ago.
After Mike Johnson's first game replacing Jimmy Raye as offensive coordinator against Atlanta in Week Four, WR Michael Crabtree was asked how the new play-caller handled his first assignment.
Crabtree said: "Mike Johnson did his thing. He did what he was supposed to do. He got everybody the ball. Only thing is, Mike Johnson can't throw the ball. He can just call plays."
"When receivers start calling out quarterbacks," one pro scout said in reference to Crabtree's comments, "it's because the guy can't throw. Sure (Smith) is a nice guy and he works hard, but it's simple fact, (Alex Smith) is not very good. I don't know why it keeps getting avoided. … Sometimes it is more difficult to give up on a player who was drafted to be the franchise, especially when he was the first overall pick. I get it. I understand there are a lot of teams with quarterback problems in the National Football League, and they may not have any better options. But I'm tired of hearing the excuses. He is the worst starting quarterback in the NFL, bar none."
Regardless of how much scouts pick Smith apart or how underpowered his arm may be, he has shown some improvement this season and has looked great for stretches, as he did Sunday night. The Niners could help Smith's cause by moving him outside the pocket more and using his athletic ability to find open windows that allow him to anticipate better, as he often waits on receivers to uncover before he feels comfortable pulling the trigger, needing to see the white in receivers' eyes.
At 0-5, however, the time is fast approaching to see if David Carr, a former top overall pick with shattered confidence much like Smith, can provide a new spark. An 8-8 record could win the NFC West and there is no reason to give up yet, but if the Niners want to enjoy their first winning season since Steve Mariucci was coach, they need a legitimate quarterback. Alex Smith is not the answer.
• With a deficient, career backup quarterback at the helm, Bears OL coach Mike Tice was granted his wish from Mike Martz, as the Bears took to the ground and allowed Matt Forté to chip away at the Panthers' high-energy, bend-don't break defense that broke a few more times than John Fox would have liked. When given opportunities, Forté has proven he could be one of the most productive backs in the league.
• Browns president Mike Holmgren knows how to fix offenses. That may be the reason Eric Mangini is still in Cleveland. If he was willing to accept advice on how to make the offense work and could field a strong defense, the Browns stood a fighting chance. It says here, if Mangini cannot show enough improvement to survive another season, Holmgren will keep alive the trend of hiring a defensive-minded coach, as the Browns have historically done the past three decades — namely Romeo Crennel, Butch Davis, Bill Belichick and Marty Schottenheimer.
• The Panthers have enough talent to be competitive, and John Fox knows how to coach and motivate a team, but the head-coaching position has increasingly grown to encompass so much more than it did even when Fox took over the job in Carolina in 2002. Success as a head coach requires being able to handle the team, manage players and their problems and have a philosophy and vision that coincides with the GM, and in some cases ownership. It involves hiring coordinators and assistants, and perhaps the most underrated part of a head coach's job — and where Fox is coming up short — is managing and developing assistants. Part of what gave Fox a leg up on the competition when he was initially hired was his familiarity with the coaching community and vision for compiling a strong coaching staff, but his staff, after much restructuring, now leaves much to be desired, and the Panthers' young roster is sorely in need of more attention.
• It is no coincidence that the five teams who lead the NFL in sacks allowed — Chicago (21), Arizona (19), Philadelphia (19), Carolina (17), Oakland (16) — did not have their starting quarterback entering Week Five because of injury or inefficiency. Good protection and play-calling are keys to efficient QB play, and underappreciated in the evaluation of quarterbacks.
• Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu for years have set the standard at the safety position, but the Redskins' LaRon Landry, who intercepted an Aaron Rodgers pass in overtime that set up the game-winning field goal, has as much physical talent as either of them, and in his fourth year as a safety in a more aggressive 3-4 front, is coming into his own the way that Sean Taylor was before he passed away. Landry also drilled Packers TE Donald Lee in the first quarter and forced a fumble. He was all over the field against Green Bay and is making as strong of an impact as any back-half defender in football.
• Raiders S Mike Huff has never been known for being physical, but he did not have any trouble getting past the diminutive Darren Sproles in pass protection on the game-changing forced fumble that was scooped up by Tyvon Branch and returned for a TD late in the Raiders' 35-27 win over San Diego. Credit the Raiders for capitalizing on the matchup. But more kudos deserve to go to the Raiders' special teams, which twice came off Antwan Applewhite's outside shoulder in the B gap on punt coverage and blocked punts. Instead of protecting the outside where there was little help, Applewhite turned in, failing to kickslide, and left P Mike Scifres exposed to a gaping hole. Expect Chargers veteran special-teams coach Steve Crosby to make some changes to the punt team after he gets done reviewing the tape, specifically at the left guard position No. 90 occupies.
• One of the most underrated keys to success in the NFL involving a lot of luck is how healthy a team stays through December. With Aaron Rodgers, Clay Matthews and Jermichael Finley all leaving the Redskins' game with new injuries, the Packers could be in trouble next week when Miami visits. Success in the NFL today hinges so much on when a team catches an opponent, and the reeling Dolphins, with a week to rest, could not be visiting Green Bay at a better time.
• I know Broncos rookie WR Demaryius Thomas has explosive, big-play ability, but I don't understand why Denver would risk injuring the long-levered standout by having him return kickoffs, considering he was not far removed from a leg injury suffered in the offseason. Sure enough, against Baltimore Sunday, Thomas was returning a kickoff when he took a big hit from LB Jason Phillips that left him shaken up.