The American Revolution. Where beef jerky, FDR, muscle cars, nuclear bombs, and flying tyrannosaurs were made. A time of freedom, leaders, and cannon balls baked into one casserole of awesome. We know of some great generals on both ends of the revolution (quick – name the most famous general you can think of) but there were quite a few shitty ones too that you don’t really hear about. There’s one guy I remember learning about who fought for the US but did pretty much everything he could to ensure that the British won. Not intentionally of course, but it was one gaffe after another. Though in control of a large army, his troops were undisciplined and did not respect his command which he even acknowledged. He reenlisted many of them too late, weakening the army, and often advanced upon the British without securing proper ammunition, putting his life and others needlessly at risk. Perhaps most egregiously, even when the US controlled Boston, he freely let the British forces restock their supplies, and only moved in once they had left the harbor permanently. Historians agree that his actions prolonged the war with the British for months, and his victories were often a result of others helping out. On the whole the guy clearly wasn’t meant to be a military leader and it’s a wonder those in power even let him.
What defines greatness? Is it defined by ones success? Ones failure? Or is it a combination of the two, success in the face of known failure?
The 49ers are currently sitting at 10-3 which is a drastic increase over last year’s 5-8 at this point in the season. There is no doubt about that improvement. Like going from Dreyers to Ben and Jerrys. You know quality when you see it. The Niners are 1st in points allowed, allowing only 14 points a game and 12th in scoring at 23.6 points a game which is good for the 3rd best differential in the league. They clinched the NFC West two weeks ago with the win over the Rams – something they haven’t done in over a decade. Frank Gore is finally healthy and just as sweet is that Michael Crabtree has become a legitimate threat in this offense as Smith’s primary target. It would be easy to consider this season a success no matter what else happens since they are playing like a competitive team.
Who am I kidding – I’d rather throw myself through a wall than watch the Niners lose in the first round of the playoffs. But that’s where they’re headed. The problem really begins and ends with this percentage: 35.56%. That’s the percent the Niners score a touchdown when in the red zone this season. To put that in perspective, the league average is slightly above 50%, and this is the 11th worst TD scoring percentage of any team since 2002. The average record of those teams was 4.7-11.3. The only team above .500 was the 2007 Titans at 10-6, with an expected win record of 8-8. Four of the 10 teams had 1 or 2 losses. I’m not saying correlation is causation necessarily, but no matter how much you call baby cow veal, it’s still baby cow. And delicious.
What is most astounding is that the Niners expected record this year is 10-3, which means we are right where we should be based on the number of points we’ve scored and given up. Seems obvious. But that means that even with a terrible redzone scoring percentage – indicative of a poor record – the Niners are still 10-3. Which in turn means that our number 1 defense combined with an offense that creates many opportunities for scoring is a pretty good team that still generates the 12th most points in the league at a league worst rate of redzone TD scoring. See where this is going? If the Niners could even get to a league average, they could be a great team, not just a very good one.
As always, it all begins and ends with Alex Smith. Let’s peel back the numbers like an onion made of numbers.
|Year||Total Passer Rating||19-Goal||10-Goal|
The numbers tell a story. And it stinks. By most metrics the 49ers offense has been better this year. It’s scored more points, been more efficient, and generally has played better all around. Alex Smith has stepped up his game which has been reflected in his passer rating and the scoring ability of the team. While making significant strides in the middle of the field, Smith has been like a hunter without a weapon in the red zone. And he’s no Bear Grylls either. Even last year where he did his best impression of an awful quarterback, Smith had a very good passer rating in the redzone. This year, it’s been pretty much the opposite. It’s like they replace Smith with some other white guy from the stands named Smith but no ones in on the joke. The Niners were at a 47.62% TD scoring percent last year, below the league average. Even if Smith were to be that below average redzone quarterback of the past, he would be a very good quarterback this year.
The Cardinals game highlights that point more than anything else. Three redzone chances within the 10 yard line, and 3 field goals. The Niners lost by 2. Even one of those that were touchdowns would have potentially put the game out of reach. We were able to afford field goals the first time we played the Cardinals, but not the second time around and sure as heck not against great NFC teams like the Saints or the Packers. Any team with a great passing game puts our defense on its heels and Smith and Co. need to be able to keep up with that which means converting these easy chances.
I’ve never wished for regression to the mean more in my life than with Smith in the redzone. But you can’t fix something if you don’t try. Losing Josh Morgan hurt, and Tedd Ginn has been like Orlando Jones in “The Replacements”. Kyle Williams has been a positive surprise but is still fresh and pretty small, and Braylon Edwards has been like Orlando Jones in real life. Crabtree only has 5 catches within the 20 yard line, and only one of those is within the 10 yard line. That needs to change. Delanie Walker and Vernon Davis are great physical assets but Smith has been missing them on a consistent basis as well. Perhaps getting into that groove takes time with so much change but that’s what the last 13 weeks have been for. Smith still has 3 weeks – including tonight’s pivotal Steelers matchup – to prove his doubters wrong, but the Seahawks and Rams games won’t mean as much.
I try not to blame too much on Smith because he’s done so much more this year than I could have ever expected. Granted I expected something along the lines of terrible and awful, but I’ll take what I can get. Or so I thought. The Niners success was built on the back of a great defense and a solid run game. Smith has improved greatly but he has to take that next step to transform the Niners from a contender to a favorite. The pressure for greatness is placed solely on his surgically repaired shoulders. And it’s even more frustrating that that next step is pretty much playing like the wingless bat that he was last year. Whether or not it is fair, the rest of the season depends on him. In the playoffs, that defense and run game keeps us in every game, but it’s Smiths play that will move us onto the next one.
The failed military leader described above was none other than our first president of the United States – George Washington. Without a doubt he was the same one you thought about when I mentioned great generals. The point isn’t to compare Washington with Smith, but to understand what defines greatness or rather what doesn’t define it. Failure by no means limits the story of a leader, but only emboldens it that much more when the success finally comes through. What makes Washington’s greatness – and he was truly great – so legendary to Americans isn’t his Yorktown victory, but the numerous failures before that and coming through when it mattered most. Smith may yet again fail tonight in the red zone and I may yet again drown my sorrows in holiday Peeps, but none of that truly matters. What matters is that come playoff time with his defense giving him the opportunities for success, Smith steps into that spotlight and creates that greatness.