People have been hailing Alex Smith's "arrival" for seven years, every time he posts the rare impressive win. It's never stuck. Smith "growing up" as a quarterback is such a common occurrence that I've come to ignore it when I hear it. How long will it be until his next choke? I wonder as I roll my eyes.
Last week's playoff gauntlet was a comforting reaffirmation of the value of defense, but that doesn't take away the influence of clutch QB play. A post by football analyst Greg Cosell highlights three fourth-quarter throws that Smith made to lift the 49ers to the NFC Championship.
Through Cosell's lens, the passes are not just timely, they're outstanding on their own merit. It's funny how everyone's default analysis is to credit the receiver for the big play, because the mechanics and subtleties of QB play are so rarely understood. To many fans, they're usually just the one tossing the ball, the receivers the ones going to get it. Cosell's breakdown reveals just how demanding these passes were and how small the margin of error was.
This redefines "game manager". As Cosell aptly put, every team that wants a Lombardi will eventually require the quarterback to adapt and overcome. Whether that's on the occasional inevitable third-down-and-long, or the fourth quarter with the game on the line, this moment will come. The 49ers have built their scheme around minimizing these moments for Smith, essentially making him a game manager. When he beat the Saints, did he make himself worthy of these moments? Did he rephrase "game manager" to include epic throws, or did he transcend the phrase on his way to a new plateau of play?
Whatever the context, Smith was no doubt enabled by an awesome defense. Without that, Drew Brees is probably up by three touchdowns by the time Smith's epic fourth quarter rolls around. Last weekend demonstrated, with its surprising upset of two high-powered passing attacks, that defense is a necessary element in prolonged playoff runs. Seattle, by searching for a "game manager", is not stating a willingness to settle or succeed cheap at any cost. They're looking to protect their quarterback from playing on such an island as Drew Brees is, and this weekend goes a long ways toward validating their concern.
As a Seahawks fan, I'm continuing to induce vomiting amidst the 12th Man by complimenting Alex Smith. But elite throws deserve recognition, and they solicit thought on what Seattle should be looking for in a quarterback. Do we hold out for the all-time elite QB whose origins remain a seeming mystery, or do we seek, as a baseline, a QB who can come through in the clutch and work from there?
As of today, I'm considerably more comfortable with the latter option. Now on to seeing if these defenses can stop Tom Brady.