Tavern talk: Jury still out on Smith

On Wednesday, I looked at quarterbacks Jason Campbell and Brady Quinn and asked the question: Are they worth counting on for next year or should their teams bring in another player through the draft or free agency? Today, I’ll consider the case of Alex Smith of the 49ers.

Smith has never been one of my favorites. It started with my college scouting of him when he played his entire career at Utah out of the shotgun formation in a conference where defense is not often played — at least not well.

Smith struggled in his first year in the NFL, as most first-year quarterbacks do, but when the 49ers hired Norv Turner to run the offense, he played well. Turner may have set an NFL record for the number of bootlegs and nakeds he called for Smith because he realized that Smith was at his best when he was in space and could make high low reads outside the numbers. Plus, when Smith was in space on the edges, it gave him room to drive the ball with his lower body, which couldn’t happen in a tight pocket. Smith needs room to drive the ball; that’s why the shotgun was so effective for him in college.

In 2006, Smith had his best season as a pro, averaging 6.5 yards per pass attempt, and threw 16 touchdown passes. He also threw 16 interceptions, but it was clear that Smith, under Turner, was making progress. But then Turner left and changes occurred within the staff, which greatly affected Smith. He ended up getting injured and missed the 2008 season, and this year started the season as the backup to Shaun Hill. Now, with Jimmy Raye as the offensive coordinator -- a man who served as the offensive coordinator for Norv Turner in Oakland and knows the Turner offense well -- Smith is having a similar season to 2006. But is he having the kind of year that will give the 49ers’ decision-makers renewed faith in him as their quarterback of the future? This is the kind of question that must be answered correctly, or else there will be significant consequences.

This year, Smith is 2-5 as the starter and is 13-26 overall in his NFL career. Five wins have come on the road, and the last road win he enjoyed was in 2007 when the 49ers beat St. Louis. In fairness to Smith, the team around him has not been very talented, and winning at home or on the road the past few years has been a challenge. This year, he has actually played better on the road, but his team has not been able to win games — and the running game, which was supposed to be a strength, has not been able to dominate. In fact, the 49ers offense is actually a much better passing team than a run team.

When the 49ers get a lead this season, they tend to be very conservative, and only until they fall behind do they unleash their passing game — which is obvious in their stats. When leading, Smith averages 5.49 yards per pass attempt; when losing, he averages 7.9 yards. He has thrown eight of his touchdown passes when he was behind and three with the lead. Clearly, the 49ers feel their defense is good enough to hold a lead and do not want to make a mistake that might cost them the game. Smith has thrown four interceptions when behind and only one when ahead. This kind of offensive philosophy makes it very hard to determine if Smith is improving. Can he be the kind of player who can run an offense from the start to the end, or are the 49ers just managing him to keep him from making a mistake?

The final four games of the season will help the 49ers’ front office determine their willingness to move forward with Smith as the man. My sense of Smith is that I want to see him play at a faster pace, be able to make loose plays and not have to have everything be perfect for him to perform well. For me, his inability to be quick-minded with the football has always been a concern, but he clearly has made progress — although not enough to put all the eggs in his basket.

These next games will tell me and the fans a great deal.

Follow me on Twitter: michaelombardi

To read about why Peyton Manning should be considered the NFL MVP, check out this article from Bleacher Report.

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