Love and Sports

Love.  We spend our whole lives trying to understand it.  We spend our whole lives trying to find it.  We spend money and act a certain a way to make people love us, hoping that what we feel really is love and that they feel the same way about us too.   We find love in our family, friends, partners, and sometimes in people we don’t even know – a true phenomenon.  So much of our time is spent on meeting new people and collaborating with others, but at the end of the day, little of it really means a lot.  Most of us can count on both hands the number of people we truly love.  That connection is really nothing more than being truly open and authentic with someone else and not putting up a façade or mirrors to hide who we really are.  For it’s our greatest fear not that we’ll never find love, but that we will, and when we open up and show who we really are, that we will get hurt.

Sports have always interested me.  Even before I really got into them, it amazed me how passionate people were about it.  You’d hear one guy say he was a Niners fan and one guy say he was a Raiders fan and you’d know that they are about to butt heads.  Not to mention how any two guys with opposite interests can instantly become best friends by finding out they have the same favorite sports team.  And don’t get me started about Lakers fans.  Sports are the number one conversation starter at bars, parties, and pretty much every awkward encounter in life.  Well I’m glad you got that checked up (awkward pause) So, you see the game yesterday? Oh dude that was crazy!  Yea I know it’s… We’ve all been there.  Icebreakers don’t have anything on the power of sports.  And there’s nothing cuter than a girl who knows her way around ESPN and roots for her team.  Except for when there is a pink jersey involved.

Still, something about it didn’t quite make sense.  I really like some TV shows – The Wire is one of the best shows of all time – and I also love to learn about cars, but I wouldn’t yell at some guy I didn’t know over a show or a car.  I wouldn’t automatically like a person based on what brand of clothes they bought.  But I find myself doing that with other fans that follow my teams.  He’s a Niners fan you say?  I knew he was alright – kid looks like he doesn’t take no nonsense.  Sure, part of that is posturing and joking to make that meaning about a team, but it’s something that actually takes on an effect in my life.  When I lock eyes with that Niners fan across the bar and we give each other the slightest nod of the head, I know that he gets me.  I don’t know his name, what he’s done, or where he’s from, but at that moment it’s more than all that.

We desire that ability to connect to another person.  Many of us spend our lives hiding from those connections out of fear of getting hurt.  I’m the only person I need.  Once I just learn to love myself then only can I love other people.  Other people just don’t get me.  All we really want is for people to accept us the way we are.

I was at Barney’s Beanery in Westwood to watch the Niners game over the weekend.  As extra good luck I wore the exact same clothes that I wore during the Saints game – my throwback Steve Young jersey with my light blue jeans and boots (You don’t want to know what I wore for the Giants World Series run).  The Patriots-Ravens game already got the juices flowing in preparation for the Niners game.  The whole room was pretty much full of Niners fans at that point, and I could already feel that sense of community.  A few friends of mine made jokes about Eli Manning’s masculinity and I started chatting up the guys standing next to me about random sports knowledge to see if they knew what they were talking about (because no one’s a bigger fan than you are, right?).  I quickly dismissed them as bandwagoners and turned my attention to the guy waxing poetic about how great Staley and Iupati have been this season.  This guy knows his shit, I can respect that.  Another guy walking by me gave me a fist bump and a “Hell yea son!”, while someone else yelled out that Patrick Willis needs to break Eli Manning’s back like Bane did to Batman (Okay that was me).  The vibes felt strong and I had a good feeling about the game since so many people had come out to root for the team.  Surely we couldn’t lose.

Kickoff.  My heart was pounding after the first Niners drive ended in a quick punt, but a few good plays by our defense made sure the Giants gave it back quickly.  Then came the awesome Vernon Davis touchdown.  A perfect throw, a near perfect run, and just like that the Niners were up.  The handshakes, hugs, and high fives couldn’t have come faster.  Everyone was up in their seats thanking God and yelling like a crazy person.  I pointed at a guy wearing a VD jersey and he pointed back with a slight smile and nod.  He knows what I mean.

The second quarter didn’t exactly go to plan.  The Niners couldn’t seem to find a pass for a 3rd down conversion and the Giants scored to start off the quarter.  It seemed like every time the Niners converted any first down attempt, it stalled the immediate moment afterwards.  There were more punts than I care to count, and what made it worse was that it wasn’t even one thing that was wrong, but just everything seemed to be off.  I couldn’t shrug off the feeling that the Niners just didn’t have their head in the game.  When the Giants scored a field goal to take the lead at the end of the half, I looked around to see a bunch of dejected fans groaning.  Something just didn’t feel right.  My brother called me at half time and he just had a bad feeling about the game.  As much as I denied it, part of my mind believed it and was scared.

It’s funny how one play can change how you feel completely.  After holding the Giants back for two drives in the 3rd quarter, the Niners executed a beautiful drive ending in that wide open VD touchdown.  Suddenly the fans were back into the game.  Hahah, yea man, I knew all along we’d get our shit together.  We just need a couple of big plays like that to keep our team going.  Our defense is legit, there’s no way Manning is going to score on us.

Not without some help at least.  The 4th quarter Kyle Williams muff confused the whole bar.  Tarrell Brown getting absolutely creamed by teammate Dashon Goldson as they both went for the interception silenced the bar.  The Eli Manning touchdown pass against Raheem Brock angered the bar.  I looked around in dismay to see other people shaking their heads in disbelief that such an array of events could happen to our team.  The number of mistakes that happened in a row couldn’t happen at this time – It isn’t fair.

The Niners fought back with a field goal to tie the game, and it lit a match under everyone’s ass because the cheering didn’t stop.  Every Niners possession someone was yelling, “LETS GO NINERS LETS GO” and every Giants possession I can’t repeat here what was said.  There was passion, commitment, and fear in every yell and jeer in that group, because we wanted to believe it was possible.  Even after every chance the Niners got stalled, it didn’t stop anything.  We believed.  We believed when the Niners punted the ball with 1:18 left in regulation, and when they punted in overtime.  We believed when Justin Smith sacked Manning on that 3rd and 3 from the Niners 46 to force a punt.  The cheering never stopped as people that didn’t even know each other smiled, hugged, and yelled for the only thing they had in common.

Then Kyle Williams got stripped on the punt return.  In my head exploded an angry inferno of blame.  I blamed Kyle Williams for fumbling away the most important possession in the last decade for Niners fans.  I blamed the coordinators for not telling him to call a fair catch.  My mind went back to Vernon Davis dropping a barely tipped pass.  Blame.  To whoever injured Tedd Ginn.  Blame.  To Raheem Brock for giving up a touchdown.  To Dashon Goldson for hitting Tarrell Brown and forcing Brock into the game.  To Alex Smith for not converting on 3rd downs.  To Jim Harbaugh for not being more aggressive.  Blame, blame, blame.

The moment finally hit that the Giants recovered the ball.  All I felt was an empty sadness that felt like it would never go away.  My head was in my hands as I pulled at my hair.  I thought it was something that I, and only I, would ever feel.  But then I peeked around.  And there was just that same sadness.  Sure some people muttered things, some cursed, some were quiet, some were just in shock and awe.  But below all that was just that same sadness.  At that moment, I realized something.

When you truly connect with someone, it isn’t about what they’ve done, where they’re from, or what they enjoy.  It’s just simply being there with someone regardless of anything else.  In those few moments, I felt like I had fumbled that ball.  I didn’t blame Kyle Williams, I was Kyle Williams.  The guy standing next to me was Vernon Davis.  The guy who yelled “Hell yea son” was Raheem Brock.  The parent at home with his 3 kids was Alex Smith.  The lady with 4 dogs at Candlestick was Dashon Goldson.  And we were all each other.  Because in those few moments of sadness, we understood each other without the fear, cover, and stories.  You get me.

After the game ended, all of the fans got up and just wandered around aimlessly.  There were a few guys that had looks of disgust, some people said “I’m sorry”, and others just gave each other looks that said everything.  We eventually strolled out of the restaurant, depressed, and went on home to continue our lives.  Some of them may give up on the Niners.  Some of them were bandwagoners.  Some may not be there if the Niners don’t succeed next year.  We will all talk about how bitter that game was, but only just like that, as a game and nothing more.  I may never see the guy who nodded at me again in my life, but it doesn’t matter.  In those few moments that everyone realized what just happened, there were no more stories, covers, lies, or blame.  There was simply us.  A moment that was so pure, even in the sadness.  Because even in sadness, there is love.

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Present Probability

7%. That is the 15 year survival rate of multiple myeloma patients. That is how much power the world generates from nuclear power. That is the percent of engineers with girlfriends (rough estimate). That is the probability that was given to Alex Smith and Co. to win the Saints game with 44 seconds left on their own 33 yard line ( 7%. A statistic, cold and calculated, devoid of all feeling. The beauty about statistics, though, is that no one knows how they actually play out.

Let’s rewind this conversation for a second. As I’ve mentioned before, in past seasons Alex Smith sucked, but gave us just enough not to give up on him. He’s been like the piece of shit vacuum kept in your guest closet, hoping it’ll go away on its own, but every time the house needs a cleanup you begrudgingly take it out and use it all the while mumbling to yourself about buying a new one. Well, as we’ve all learned, sometimes it takes nothing more than believing, supporting, and not being a dick to make your vacuum perform well. Wait, we’re not talking about vacuums anymore.

At least now you don't have to squint.

Smith has had a revelation of sorts this year with a nice bump in passer rating to become the 9th best rated quarterback this year at a 90.7 rating. Look a little closer though and we see that in games 1-8 it was at a healthy 97.3, and fell in games 9-16 to an 85.0, right about where Mike Vick falls on the scale. Frankly, it’s only that high because of the low number of picks he’s had this year, not from some high stats and turnovers like Vick. And there’s nothing wrong with that, as the Niners had the best turnover differential of any team in the league which clinched them the 2nd seed. Just not a Herculean effort by Smith. Coming into the playoffs, the Niners were facing the red hot Drew Brees and I’ll let this table (we’ll call him: Lester) do the work for me:

Smith Brees
Games 1-8 97.3 100.6
Games 9-16 85.0 121.6

Uh oh is right, Lester. Uh oh indeed. Brees was hotter than a potatoe (you expected something less childish didn’t you? Let’s be honest, you don’t come here for that) and though the Niners had the 2nd best defense in the league overall, they had only the 16th best pass defense yardage wise – average. Brees had just set the single season NFL record for passing yards and threw for 46 touchdowns. To say “Jeepers Batman!” would be an understatement. Also, you are delusional since Batman doesn’t exist. We all knew that this game would be a challenge for our defense and offense, but we could never have imagined how the game started off and finished. We hoped our defense would lead the way to victory for fear of putting the ball in Smith’s small hands, but sometimes facing your fear is exactly what you need.

Smith started off the game hot with a beautiful touchdown throw to VD and followed that up with a quick short TD throw to Crabtree. Things looked good until the Saints fought back in the 2nd quarter and Smith cooled off over the next two quarters. Here are his stats for the first 3 quarters:

Smith By Quarter
Quarter Comp-Att Yards TD(s) Passer Rating
1st 5-9 78 2 119.4
2nd 7-12 52 0 68.75
3rd 3-8 30 0 48.9

Awesome 1st quarter, but the rest of the game stats were shades of Jamarcus Russell. Smith didn’t play particularly poorly, but just didn’t complete many passes in the 2nd and 3rd quarters until finally hitting big in the Smith bootleg drive in the 4th (which by the way is one of those holy shit I can’t believe this is actually working plays. You could even see it on Smith’s face. A quarterback bootleg on 3rd and 8? Hell, I won’t even run that in Madden.) In the next 34 seconds the Saints proceeded to rip that good feeling like an ambassador’s parking ticket. It would have been easy to give up. After throwing two touchdowns and just given the team the lead with the run, Smith could have despaired after the defense gave up yet another long touchdown (by defense I mean Donte Whitner. The Gilderoy Lockhart of safeties.) After gaining 18 yards in 32 seconds it didn’t look good for the Niners. I know I certainly wouldn’t have blamed that loss on Smith, for he’d already done plenty.

And not a single care was given that day by #80.

A lot of people talk about how the Niners would not be here without Harbaugh. I agree with that sentiment. They say how it is amazing what a great coach can do. I agree. But what a great coach does in any field is inspire his student to create any possibility he chooses of himself. Often times the student is unable to see what great things he is truly capable of and the teacher opens that up for him. Limiting what is possible by taking from the past only limits the future, and leaves no room for any new results. That isn’t to say Smith shouldn’t learn from his past, but he no longer had to be embarrassed or ashamed of his past, because with Harbaugh that was not his future any longer. His future was whatever he chose.

Which brings us back to the 7%. At that point it seemed insurmountable. The momentum had swung into the Saints favor with two unlikely quick long scores and nothing suggested the Niners could pull off another quick scoring drive. That 7% took into account everything about the game and the history of the players to reach that number. But it was just that, a number, based off of what was expected from previous experiences. With the odds and history stacked against him, Alex Smith gave those odds the one fingered salute and proceeded to be such a badass in the face of defeat that even Liam Neeson would be impressed. There were two particular plays that went against everything that “should” have happened, but instead Smith created a new future for himself.

The first play came with 40 seconds left on the clock on 2nd and 10, right after the incompletion to Brett Swain. The history of his play in 2011 would have almost automatically assured defeat for Smith had he listened to it. On 2nd and 10 of games, Smith had a passer rating of 80.4. In the last 2 minutes of the halves of games, Smith had a 72.5 passer rating. In his attempt numbers 31-40 of games, his passer rating was 66.9. The last two were of particular concern. The Niners rarely had to lean on Smith to throw that many passes and when they did, it was because they were behind late in games.

On attempt number 38 of his first playoff game ever, Smith lasered a 15 yard pass to Vernon Davis who broke free of a tackler to run for 47 yards. That was a huge play from VD, but Smith had rarely thrown a pass with such authority in the 7 years he’s played. Regardless of the pressure around him, Smith looked confident in the pocket and stepped into that throw. That one play increased the probability of a Niners victory from 7% to 52%. One throw, one catch, one run, and a whole new possibility.

The second play came with 14 seconds left, on 3rd and 4 from the Saints 14 yard line. The Niners had a 73% chance of winning. But don’t let that fool you. For the day, the Niners scored touchdowns on only 1 out of 3 red zone drives. For the year the Niners were the 4th worst in the league at a red zone touchdown scoring rate of 41.38%, and that actually fell to 39.47% at home. Based on statistics, as this red zone opportunity is independent of the previous ones, the overall numbers indicated the Niners would be kicking a field goal to send the game into overtime. Who knows what would have happened, since the Saints were extremely hot on their last two drives and so much of the outcome is dependent on the coin toss.

What would make this team go from very good to great is having even an average red zone touchdown scoring rate, and as always this begins and ends with Alex Smith . In 2011, in the red zone, Smith had an 80.6 rating, well below the league average and even his career average. For the season, on 3rd and 4 Smith had a rating of 70.1. While the previously discussed throw was amazing, this scenario was the Achilles’ heel of the team all season long. Smith had repeatedly attempted and failed at scoring a touchdown in the red zone, even failing twice this game. A field goal would have just confirmed the doubts about the team, proving they couldn’t come through in the clutch.

Yet none of that mattered. On his 42nd and final attempt of the game, Smith threw the best pass of his career. With Justin Peele running a short curl to make the linebacker cheat forward ever so slightly, Vernon Davis posted behind him and Smith threw before he was even open. Roman Harper collided with Davis the same moment the ball did. But it was a great catch, and an even better throw, right into his numbers. Touchdown. In the span of 26 seconds, the Niners went from a 7% chance of winning to 97%.

That kind of greatness is rare to see, especially after so many years of struggle. Regardless of the enormous odds facing him, Smith was able to fully realize it was nothing but a number from the past, and it had no say in his own future. Many would have succumbed to that pressure, but with Harbaugh at his side he was unstoppable. It makes me laugh when I hear that success is half a coach’s effort and half a players’.  It was never a 50%/50% or 70%/30% Harbaugh/Smith effort. Harbaugh gave Smith his all, and Smith responded in kind, 100%/100%. And that’s a statistic I can get behind.

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3rd & Goal

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
2010 82.1 118.7 108.1
2011 91.5 78.5 58.6

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.

Fuck yea.

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An Ode About Chilo Rachal

Let me tell you a story,
About a team.
Who played for 9 years,
Without a dream.

Without much luck,
They drafted and toiled.
Spending money,
Only to get foiled.

Occasionally they’d get,
A player like Gore.
But then someone like Balmer,
And nothing much more.

After 2009,
Hopes seemed to get better.
Then 2010,
Things couldn’t get deader.

But they entered 2011,
Started one and one.
Yet it finally seemed the team,
Could get it done.

On an 8 game win streak,
The 49ers they went.
Giving all that they could,
Until they were spent.

There was Willis and Bowman,
And Vernon Davis too.
And oh my Alex Smith!
The way he threw.

Then came week 12,
The Ravens they played.
With two brothers,
A rivalry was made.

It was a rough first half,
Both defenses played well.
Then Adam Snyder got injured,
And the 49ers, they fell.

Entered Chilo Rachal,
Oh what’s in a name!
From the moment he entered,
It changed the game.

Alex Smith returned,
To 2007 form.
The fans, they hated it,
Giving him scorn.

The Ravens collapsed,
The right side of the line.
Smith had to throw,
With barely no time.

Crabtree and Davis,
Worked as hard as they could.
If they were able to help,
Surely they would.

But Chilo Rachal,
Made it impossible to bare.
Since no one could escape,
Not even a hare.

Sack after sack,
Alex smith took.
It got so bad,
We could barely look.

Even though the defense did try,
To give it their best.
Nine sacks later,
I think you know the rest.

The 49ers must find a replacement,
For it’s been fun,
Because if they don’t,
They’ll be one and done.

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Coaching Confidence

It’s the 3rd quarter with about 2 minutes left.  The 49ers were in the middle of a tough game against the Lions and it had been an ugly day to that point.  Neither team had really done much since the first half but Detroit had at least put up a field goal in the quarter.  Thanks to Andy Lee the Niners had pinned the Lions close to their own end zone and after they punted it back, the Niners got the ball in Lions territory at the 44.  It was a game marred by roughly 10,000 false start penalties since the Detroit crowd made more noise than Oprah at a buffet, and so of course the Niners started off the drive with their 10,001th false start.  (Though I suspect it was Anthony Davis dreaming about donuts.)  Up to that point the Niners were 2 for 11 on 3rd down and coincidentally were at 2nd and 11 after a short Frank Gore run.  We obviously weren’t doing too hot on 3rd down and Smith and Co. needed to make a move at that point.  As crazy old Maurice once said, “Fortunes favor the bold” and the Niners went for a pass.  Play action, Crabtree on a drag route and uncovered.  Seeing this, Smith stepped into the pocket, locked into his receiver, and launched a throw.

The ball missed Crabtree by quite some distance, sailed over his head, and was picked off by the Lions.  I proceeded to yell at the TV until I passed out and woke up a few minutes later, confused and naked.  While that tends to happen to me often while watching Niners games, this was different.  And it wasn’t because I woke up naked.  At that point, the Niners were actually winning.

How did we get here?  Last year the Niners entered the year with high expectations in a turrrrible NFC West and well we all know how that ended.  To summarize: 6-10 and still in contention at 5-9 only to lose to the Rams week 16.  I must have passed out at least 20 times that game.  This year, every analyst predicted the Rams as the hot team to win the division but they got injured early and Bradford had a serious sophomore slump.  (In retrospect, of course they failed.  Their best receiver was some white guy named Danny Amendola!  That guy has a 77 rating on Madden!  That’s fucking terrible!  Did I mention he’s white!  How the hell did the Niners not win the division last year!  Let’s move on before I pass out again.)  With the Rams crumbling, the Cardinals being the Cardinals, and Tavaris Jackson existing on the Seahawks, the NFC West was primed for a taking and the Niners jumped into that void and half way into the season, haven’t looked back.

Something is still missing though, and there were plenty of reasons for us to get worse.  We lost our man in the middle, Aubrayo Franklin – though upgraded a few other areas – but more than that we installed a new system with a new head coach this offseason.  That would be challenging enough but we forget that players couldn’t talk to their coaches until just before the preseason thanks to the lockout.  I commented briefly on the effect of change on Alex Smith previously, and OH GOD IT WAS AWFUL to put it mildly.  Condensing what should have been a 2 ½ month gradual learning process into about 2 weeks is like cramming a whole quarter’s worth of information for your final at the very end.  Conceivable, if you’re smart.  Alex Smith had a 2.2 GPA.  That shit ain’t gonna work, and one more bad year was going to get him thrown out of school.  With no time to practice the new playbook and without strong leadership in the team, it seemed like the Niners were doomed to mediocrity again.

But then something interesting happened.  Without even meeting Smith in person, Coach Jim Harbaugh stated that he thought Alex Smith was the quarterback for the 49ers that could take them to the playoffs.  At the time that was a ridiculous statement, but I figured there was no free agency and rather than alienating the only option on the team, you may as well back him up until you find someone better.  But as time passed, nothing changed.  Smith ran a lockout training camp and Harbaugh stuck with him as his starter throughout the preseason, talking about his toughness and strength and as an NFL quarterback.  In an interview with XX Sports Radio in San Diego, Harbaugh said, “The things that occurred to him over the first even years of Alex’s career have been good.  There has been some tough times, but all those experiences I believe lead to success”.  At the time that sounded like public posturing for the small reason that every coach who has ever had a bad quarterback has said the same thing.  Unless that quarterback is Ryan Leaf.  Yet even after free agency opened and with some other quarterback possibilities, nothing changed.

When you tell yourself a lie repeatedly, you eventually think it’s true and I thought that’s what Harbaugh did with all that Smith talk.  I had a similar relationship with Daunte Culpepper in my fantasy leagues…things didn’t end well.  For either of us. Regardless of if he believed it, things obviously turned around.  ESPN writer Gregg Easterbrook has an interesting theory about coaches, that they can affect a team up to 10%, positively or negatively.  Hindsight is always 20/20 but let’s look back at Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary for a moment.  The obvious problem is that guys named Mike are shitty coaches.  I’m only half joking.  Mike Nolan was a career defensive coordinator, interested in pounding the ball and quick throws (and a propensity for draws on 3rd and long, dump offs to running backs for 2 yard losses and general stroke inducing behavior).  He had the offensive creativity and fortitude of a wooden stick.  Mike Singletary was a former linebacker and wanted to install a smash mouth defense with a corresponding offense.  He, along with offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye even put in a spread offense to take advantage of Smith’s abilities.  Sounds good right?  Except I was talking about BOTH Troy and Alex.  When Alex Smith had a rough start, he was pulled and berated on the sideline and substituted for Troy Smith.  Imagine you were in school learning multiplication and every time you messed up your teacher yelled at you in front of the whole class, and then proceeded to throw you out of class whenever he felt like it.  It’s not really a surprise the Niners did so poorly.

The look of a stable man.

To understand a man’s actions, you need to first understand the man.  I knew that Harbaugh had a successful coaching career at Stanford – especially with Andrew Luck –  and I presumed that it translated over well to the NFL.  That’s true, to a certain extent, but after doing some additional research (read: Google) I found much more.   Harbaugh was a quarterback drafted by the Bears in 1987 under coach Mike Ditka.  He played his first seven seasons for the Bears, struggling mightily at times, that culminated in a in-game incident where he threw an interception and was berated repeatedly on the sideline by Ditka, a guy known for his emotions and extreme temper.  He really came into his own when he was traded to the Colts where he took them to the AFC championship game his 9th NFL season.

What he said to Sports Radio wasn’t just posturing, it was actually much greater than that because he himself had been through the same challenges.  Though he hadn’t faced the same turmoil in coaching changes that Smith had, he’d been through the insecurities and public lashings that Smith had faced.  Ditka’s coaching style may have inspired some, but for players like Harbaugh what they needed was reassurance and guidance, not benchings and yellings.  Ditka’s style showed off in the attitudes of many of his former players including Hall of Fame linebacker Mike Singletary who was on the team with Harbaugh.  The same Singletary who eventually became the head coach of the 49ers and pulled the same tactics that he had seen from his own coach on Alex Smith.

The reason for the 49ers success isn’t just that Harbaugh’s a good coach, but that he saw some of himself in Alex Smith.  He too had faced a tormenting coach and knew what it was like to crumble under that pressure.  What he saw was a talented yet struggling quarterback in need of some guidance and safety, and I think in a way that’s why he decided to come to the 49ers.  He’d seen himself crumble under that pressure and wasn’t about to let it again to happen to a young man in the league.  By supporting Smith even before he had met him, by always giving positive feedback and helping him through his struggles, Harbaugh was giving Smith the strength and support he never received until after that 7th season.  And that’s been the difference this year.  Our team has developed on defense to be sure, but Smith has played with a confidence and poise never yet seen.  He still has his gaping deficiencies and will never be a Peyton Manning, but it’s not about that.  With Harbaugh behind him now, Smith knows he can take that extra risk and make mistakes knowing that he will have a coach that will be there for him through all of his failures and successes.  It’s not a coincidence that now Smith has a 4th quarter passer rating of 99.0 when the score differential is a touchdown or less, and leads all quarterbacks in the league with a passer rating of 131.0 in the last two minutes of the halves.

It’s the 4th quarter with about two minutes left in the game.  The 49ers were down 19-15 and were driving towards the Lions endzone to score what could be the game winning touchdown.  The Lions had scored 13 points to the Niners 3 in the second half but they had finally gotten to the Lions 7 yard line.  After 3 plays, it was 4th and goal from the 6 yardline.  The game was coming down to this next play, and everyone knew it wouldn’t be a run.  The ball would be back in Alex Smith’s hands.  Delanie Walker lined up right with Crabtree in the slot.  At the snap, Crabtree ran a post to the outside corner, and Walker slanted under that, giving him the smallest of separation from the cornerback covering him.  With a linebacker hovering in the end zone and the cornerback just behind him and Walker still at the 3 yard line, Smith would have to make the perfect throw leading him into the endzone.  Seeing this, Smith stepped into the pocket, locked into his receiver, and launched a throw.


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Giant Tune-Up

Madison Bumgarner and the Giants pitchers have often felt depressed after a lack of run support.

The other week I spent 6 hours at my cousin’s house getting my old Diesel’s air conditioning working before my exodus back to Los Angeles.  As per normal, I hardly did any work but rather observed in a detached state of interest as my cousin and uncle worked away.   I wouldn’t call my car sexy.  It’s a 1979 Mercedes 300D (with an ’83 engine, HIYO!!!) that has 220k miles on it, burns engine oil, leaks brake fluid, has no right mirror and goes 0-60 in 24 seconds.  Oh and if I go over too large a hill I can see the car’s engine temperature gauge rise way too fast.  Sometimes the car just turns off too.  Hell, I have to take 101 just to get to LA to avoid the grapevine (or as I call it, my personal Everest).  But things were going to be different this time down.  I would finally have the blessed air conditioning working to keep my own internal engine from overheating.  No more sweating through every layer of clothing I wore in 100 degree temperature.  No siree, I would finally be able to travel in relative comfort and know that no longer would I need the windows to go down; it was now a luxury.

My car died just north of San Luis Obispo and had to get towed back up and I drove my grandma’s car down instead.  How is this at all relevant to anything about sports you ask?  A few days ago I started to reflect on the Giants season and about what went wrong.   Yea we had a few injuries this year and lost Posey so early but it was pretty much the same team, a team focused on its pitching which ranked 4th in the league in WAR (wins above replacement level player, or the number of wins your guys get you over a bunch of Triple A level players).  Our offense was pretty bad in the first half but that wasn’t much different than last year, and we still were in 1st place of the division by a few games.  Then the Giants started to sputter in the second half and I knew we needed some sort of help.  Finally about 3/4ths of the way into the season the Giants traded for Beltran (I was in NY at a Mets game and my friend texted me “enjoy watching Zach Wheeler strike out the side in two years”.  I cried.) for that extra boost they needed.  That was a solid acquisition for the stretch, kinda like getting the A/C working in my car except you forget holy shit it burns engine oil, overheats, and sometimes just turns off.  It was great getting Beltran but we tend to forget the Giants still trotted out the 4th worst offense in the major leagues – the worst after the All Star break.  Besides Pablo Sandoval having a bounce back year, almost every other critical player on our team from last year regressed in a significant manner:

(OPS = offense; Fld = defense; WAR = combination)

Player OPS (2010/2011) Fld (‘10/’11) WAR (‘10/’11)
Aubrey Huff .891/.676 6.9/-4.9 6/-0.6
Andres Torres .823/.643 22/9.4 6.8/2.1
Pat Burrell .872/.756 6.1/-4.3 2.9/0.5
Cody Ross .872/.756 -.7/-5.5 .4/.9

You don’t need to understand what they all specifically mean, but when things decrease or go from + to – it’s generally considered a bad thing (unless we’re talking about STDs.  But that’s for another post.)  Part of that is bad luck – perhaps regression to the mean – but part of that is just that these guys are old and an additional year is just more time for things to go wrong.  Let’s not forget injury and replacement, with Uribe leaving and Posey and Sanchez going down with injury:

Players OPS (2010/2011) Fld (‘10/’11) WAR (‘10/’11)
Posey/ (Stewart and Whiteside) .862/.582 3.0/5.2 3.9/1.0
Sanchez/(Keppinger and Fontenot) .739/.651 5.9/-2.7 2.5/0.7
Uribe/(Tejada and Cabrera) .749/.572 6.8/2.3 3.3/-0.6

It’s one thing to not replace any older parts on your car as long as you do some basic maintenance, but it’s a whole different thing to replace your transmission oil with your grandfather’s dentures.  That just fundamentally isn’t going to work.  The average age of the Giants was 29, 6th oldest in the league, but if you take the average age of the top 12 offensive players with the most ABs, it’s 32.  I’m no doctor, but I think the medical term for that is “old as fuck”.

Waddya say Willie, will ya put on your old uniform and cover center for us?

Huff and Torres were huge for the Giants in 2010 in their run to the world series, and Ross – who was a “screw you, you’re not getting him even though we don’t need him” signing to other NL teams – turned out to the NLCS MVP but they all performed poorly the whole year.  Let’s not forget Pat “the Bat” Burrell who played extremely well – how he had a positive field rating in 2010 I will never know – after the Giant signed him from Tampa, before remembering he was, of course, Pat Burrell and proceeded to strike out 21 times in 42 at bats in last year’s playoffs, entering this season as a caricature of a caricature of himself.  As disappointing as it was to see Torres regress so much, it could be expected from a career journey man.  Yet the fall of Huff was like taking a driver to the head (which I’ve done before, and let me tell you, it is NOT fun).  As his WAR and Fld indicated, he played extremely well on the field and with his bat and generally was the biggest run producer we had besides Posey.  His OPS dropped over 200 points this year to .676.  The league average OPS for all NL players this year was .710.  That’s for ALL players in the NL, not just at a prime offensive position like 1B that Huff plays at.  Of the top 10 qualified players at 1B in the NL, Huff is last in OPS by a solid 100 points, and almost 200 points below the NL qualified 1B average OPS.  His negative WAR meant I could take Babe Ruth’s body and put it on first base and STILL get .6 extra wins for the season.  Or something like that.  I’m not sure MLB allows corpses on the field.  But then how did Tejada play the whole season? (Don’t worry, it’s not alcoholism if it’s justified.  Take that drink.)

I never liked Uribe all too much but when I heard we signed Tejada at shortstop for 8 million dollars I had to resist throwing myself out the nearest window.  His 2011 WAR was a 0.0, or the same as a replacement player, but I knew what he brought to the table (which was literally nothing) was far less than what he was taking away (any hope of getting a ball near him, good run support, and of course my eternal soul).  The Sanchez injury also hurt even though his statistics weren’t great he batted for a solid average and played plus defense at 2nd base.  All I can say for that is that we traded for a player from the Astros (the worst team in baseball by light years) to cover.  Let’s move on.

But Posey.  Posey’s injury was the worst one in every way.  Extra innings, close game, protecting the plate, only to wreck his knee in a gruesome way.  He was the fresh blood of our 2010 run and the face of our franchise this year.  That injury was like peeing in my gas tank and tearing off the Mercedes emblem on the front of the car (the latter of which actually happened).  The peeing would hurt performance sure, but dammit the stealing of the emblem also hurt my dignity and pride in a way than words can’t express.  Posey’s production would be missed, but more than that he was a symbol of our team, of the future, and of our excellence and just like that it was taken away.

As much as I wanted to blame Beltran and his .940 OPS for not being enough to carry us to the playoffs, I should have known fixing the air conditioning wasn’t going to help for any significant problems because it wasn’t just one part that needed fixing, it was a lot of them.  This Giants team was always going to rely on its pitching to carry the burden, but in the same way my car has a solid transmission and engine, if you don’t fix at least some of the other problems, eventually it’ll completely give out.  I can survive a dirty air filter, old transmission oil, or beat up rotators but when nothing is fixed and you give me a dirty oil filter, well, what can you expect?  The Giants could have survived maybe one or two of those players failing us, but not everyone at once.  No matter who they traded for, it was doomed from the start.  Beltran was at best a crutch except the Giants had two broken knees and a dislocated shoulder.

The Giants still have excellent pitching, perhaps better than last year when they won the World Series.  It was tough to see them fall flat this year, but given everything that has happened it wasn’t hard to believe.  There’s room for improvement, and it will happen.  Posey and Sanchez will both be back from season ending injuries.  Brandon Belt will hopefully get a full season under his…belt (You know how I know I’ve never been to journalism school?  I used that pun.  And I’ve never been to journalism school either, but still.)  I can’t say that any of the players that regressed will go back to 2010 form, but it’s never been about one player.  It’s the collective parts that make the whole thing move.  As long as the Giants can fix some of their problems, the team will still run on their pitching.  And I know I trust Sabean and Bochy to sign some over the hill veteran who still has maybe one good year in the tank before signing him to a 3 year extension.

At the auto shop our mechanic found some old crud in the fuel tank that was blocking the fuel lines, which caused the engine to give out.  After cleaning that out the Diesel functions again.  The car is always going to have issues (it’s about as old as the Giants players are), but I know it is still fundamentally strong at its core.  I’ve changed that oil, air filter, and a few other things.  It still leaks.  It still is slow as ever.  But I have a new emblem out front standing tall and proud.  I know now I’m ready to face my Everest.  Let’s hope the Giants will be too.

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Great Expectations

The first time I saw Alex Smith in person, it was something impressive.  It was my first time at the 49ers training camp in Santa Clara and there was perhaps never a better time to be a fan in the last decade.  As you all may know, in 2005 with the 1st overall pick the 49ers drafted Alex Smith to be the first franchise quarterback since Steve Young decided to become a spokesman for Toyota.  While many debate we should have taken Aaron Rodgers for the obvious reasons, at the time he was far from a conclusive pick (The 2005 draft wasn’t really something to write home about, behind Rodgers the best player taken was Roddy White.  Guys like Troy Williamson and Pacman Jones were taken in the top-10.  Ouch.  This parenthesis comment has gone on far too long, I digress.)

That day I sat in the bleachers watching Alex Smith throw perfect spirals to Arnaz Battle (lol) beside Ken Dorsey, Cody Pickett and Tim Rattay (tears).  It frankly didn’t matter what happened, because Alex Smith was the MAN that day.  (It’s not that I didn’t appreciate the Jeff Garcia era, because I did and he was good.  But seeing a man take a running start for a heave down field and seeing it go 30 yards as one of the best receivers of all time had his man didn’t do it for me.  Plus I hear Garcia was a really meany.  Yeah I read the TO book.)  After practice the players strolled by into the locker room and the fans lined up by the short fences to get signatures.  Player after player walked by, some taking the time to sign (Jeff Ulbrich was especially nice.  Plus I’ve never seen a man fill out a XXL jersey without pads in my life until seeing him.  Seriously my head was smaller than his bicep, and I have a HUGE head.) and others avoiding the eye of fans just to shower.  But we all knew what who we wanted to see – the golden boy Alex Smith.  At last he strolled by smiling like the hot girl at school who knew every guy wanted her.  Tens of fans (EPIC numbers) waved their Official 49ers signature pages for him to sign, and I knew that I had no shot to get mine noticed.  So I did what any slightly chubby 16 year old would do.  I took off my blue and white Adidas Superstars, waved it like a mad man in the sea of red and hoped he would notice.  The spirit of Garrison Hearst must have smiled down upon me because Smith saw my shoe, muttered “What’s this?”, smiled, took it, and signed it.  Though everyone around me seemed disgusted, I felt like a kid at Christmas.  That shoe was a symbol of great things to come, of a legacy about to unfold for a great franchise ready to give their throne to a new king.

I turned on the 49ers-Texans game last weekend just in time to see Brian Cushing level Smith who threw a perfect pass to Dominique Barber for an interception.  It’s hard to believe Smith has only been on the team for 5 years (6 including the season he didn’t play); it’s seemed like so much longer.  His first year was miserable but to be expected of a sub-par team and a rookie QB learning a new system.  As every Panthers fan will be saying in 4 months, “Peyton Manning  had a bad rookie season, look how he turned out!”  Yea okay buddy.  I’ve cursed Alex Smith more times than I care to remember.  I’ve seen enough botched passes and 3rd and long dump offs to last me a lifetime.  It’s not just the bad passes but the indecisiveness and general ineptitude that leave such a bad taste in the mouth after seeing him play.  I’ve rarely been watching a game and been down late and said to myself, “Smith HAS this.  He’s not going to let us down.”  I’ve rooted for the Niners to use every pick they have to draft a quarterback and just for shits to see what happens and to end this experiment.

Like many Niner fans, Alex Smith is used to being in the fetal position during games since he joined the NFL.

But part of me still wonders.  I’ve seen the flashes of competency.  I’ve seen him use his athleticism like few quarterbacks in the league can.  Perhaps the biggest thing that makes me wonder is what if the team had a consistent coach staff?  It can’t just be coincidence that some of the best teams and quarterbacks have had few coaching changes – Brady Bellicheck, Manning Dungy, Roethlisberger Tomlin, Rodgers McCarthy, and of course the legendary Russell Kiffin.  Though Smith has had primarily two, Nolan Smith and Mike Singeltary (two guys made for defensive coordinator positions and live action Ninja Turtle movies respectively), they’ve also had a new offensive coordinator every year which for a young quarterback coming from a spread offense is a significant roadblock.  It’s like going to school but every year you have a new teacher.  Wait that’s a bad analogy.  Let’s move on.

Unfortunately, the carousel of coaches can’t explain away all of Smith’s problems, and even though it has often felt like Smith hasn’t improved, I’m taking a look at his stats to see any evidence of such.  This can often be a complex question to resolve so we’re going to break it down into 3 main components to illustrate intelligence, maturity, and pure talent:

  1. Does Smith improve as the season progresses?  Having a new OC every year makes the initial few games difficult but the sign of a smart quarterback is one who can adapt as the season moves along.
  2. Has Smith improved between season to season?  The maturation of a player into his prime should coincide with improved play regardless of coordinators.
  3. Has he ever shown poise?  “Moxie”?  Leadership?  Clutchness?  Is he even good?
  4. Just how many licks does it really take to get to the center of a tootsie pop?

Okay the last one won’t be discussed but is equally as important.  Below is a table by month of some key statistics by month of Alex Smith’s career, provided by Pro Football Reference.

Month GP W-L (%) Passer Rating TD-INT
September 11 3-8 (27%) 74.3 6-6
October 13 2-11 (15%) 71.9 17-16
November 11 5-6 (45%) 69.8 10-12
December 16 6-10 (37%) 69 14-18

The numbers aren’t pretty.  With Smith behind the helm the Niners start off slow and though their record improves, it is still awful, below 50%.  A percent over 50% would at least indicate a “run” of sorts but nothing is to be found and though the changes in passer rating are minimal, they get only worse as the months progress, a finding corroborated by the TD-INT ratio.  At least he’s not Akili Smith:

Month GP W-L (%) Passer Rating TD-INT
December 1 0-1 (0%) 81.9 0-0

Oh.  That passer rating is higher than Smith’s ever was.  Well, sample size?  Okay so while Smith doesn’t seem to improve over the season, he has only played a full season once, his sophomore season and that sort of inconsistent playing time is a factor.  By season, Smith has missed 7 (first 7), 0, 9 (last 9), 16, 5 (first 5), and 5 (middle 5) games (both from benching and injury but mostly injury), confounding what the statistics indicate.  It still isn’t an excuse for bad play but he was never able to establish a consistent repertoire with his teammates or comfort in the new system implemented each year.

On a macro level, a player is expected to progress between seasons as his football acumen grows.  Here are Smith’s stats since he got into the league:

Year W-L(%) Passer Rating Y/A
2005 2-5 (28%) 40.8 5.3
2006 7-9 (44%) 74.8 6.5
2007 2-5 (28%) 57.2 4.7
2009 5-5 (50%) 81.5 6.3
2010 3-7 (30%) 82.1 6.9

Smith had an awfully bad first year.  No way around it.  I haven’t seen football that bad since playing center in my Pop Warner league where I lied about my weight.  Though it would seem 2006 was still below average, with Norv Turner at the offensive coordinator helm and Smith fresh into his second season, the Niners finished a surprising 7-9 and seemed ready to break through.  Smith’s yards per attempt went up by over a yard which indicates maturity and comfort in the quarterback position.  With another year under his belt, fans everywhere thought Smith had just started his progression and would soon make that leap into at the very least an above average quarterback.  Then came 2007.  The Niners won their first two games leading to high expectations for the rest of the season but it was just an aberration sprinkled with luck.  The Steelers pummeled the Niners in week 3 with Smith tossing up a stinker and in his first snap of week 4 the Seahawks separated his shoulder.  Smith came back for a three game stretch and lost them all before shutting down for the season with shoulder problems.  In the offseason still facing shoulder problems, Smith tried rehabbing to allow himself to start the season but lost the starting job to J.T O’Sullivan (Fun fact: prior to starting week 1 of the 2008 season, JTO had started a grand total of 0 games and only been in 5.  I should just stop writing now.) Due to additional shoulder problems the Niners shut him down for 2008, and played decently in 2009 behind Shaun Hill and initially stunk so bad in 2010 that the Niners started Troy Smith for a few games (okay so Smith got injured again but still) before bouncing back to play well down the stretch.  Yup, the same Troy Smith who cried when being challenged by Singletary on the sideline.

Alex Smith, Troy Smith, AND David Carr? It's a wonder the 49ers didn't go 16-0 in 2009.

The fates haven’t been particularly kind to Alex Smith, but his sophomore season in 2006 beckons for further analysis.  In Smith’s first full season as quarterback, the Niners put together a respectable 7-9 record despite a -114 run differential (the Niners won close and got BLOWN out of the water in their losses.  Including one 41-0 shutout against the Chiefs back when Dante Hall was still relevant and Eddie Kennison was more than a guy who had ridiculously good hands in Madden).  The expected win record based on their run differential that year was actually 5-11, or two wins worse than their actual record.  That isn’t so hard to believe with a run differential so bad and at first glance it seems to be nothing more than luck.  But perhaps… no it couldn’t be… could it be… moxie?  Guts?  Winnerability?  Is that even a word?

Statistically and grammatically speaking, that’s a no, niet, nonn, and no.  That last one was in Spanish.  Below is a split of the 2006 season games organized by wins by more than a touchdown, games decided by a touchdown or less, and losses by more than a touchdown, with the average opponent record and margin of win or loss.

W > 7 W-L < 8 L > 7
Games 2 8 (5-3) 6
Avg Opp Rec 5.5 – 10.5 6.6 – 9.4 10.6 – 5.4
Avg Margin 12 25

Without going over the numbers again, what this really means is that the Niners could beat bad teams (barely) while getting demolished against teams better than them.  In games decided by a touchdown or less they want 5-3 which can be considered especially lucky when considering they had 6 losses by an average of 25 points.  That isn’t an occasional bad game, that indicates significant team problems.  While I’d love to give that record meaning, it can really be boiled down to sampling error.  Think of it like flipping a coin.  You flip a coin 16 times, the probability of getting 8 heads is around 20% of the time.  You flip a coin 1000 times, the probability of getting heads would be close to 50%.  Point being, 16 games and the resulting win loss record doesn’t correctly indicate a team’s true talent.  Margin of victories and losses does, and the huge margin in losses explains why the expected record is 5-11.

But football ability isn’t just measured by statistics, it’s also about the feel of the game.  Sitting at 5-5 in a weak division the Niners were posed for a run just one game behind the Seahawks.  After a close loss to the Rams and two subsequent losses to the Saints and Favres (with awful performances by Smith), it seemed like all progress had been lost.  Then came a Seahawks game where the Niners entered the 4th quarter down 7-3.  Something must have clicked because Smith turned into Montana, throwing two touchdown passes and mixing in some Young (Steve, not Vince.  Wait that works too.  Forget this note.) with a touchdown run that ended any hopes the Seahawks had of coming back.  After, Smith played a competent game against the Cardinals in a loss and followed that up by playing well enough to beat a Broncos team in overtime that had the 8th best defense in the league.  Smith didn’t turn any heads but did just well enough to lead the team down the field enough times to set up Nedney’s four field goals, including the game winner in overtime.

That was the last time I’ve ever felt that Smith had a bright future in this league.  But it doesn’t mean Smith doesn’t have a future in the league, or that he still can’t be a useful quarterback with the Niners in the short run.  As a fan you tend to hate unrelentingly, love unquestionably, hold grudges permanently, and forgive instantly.  Sometimes all at once.  Sometimes you hold onto the small bits of good news even when you know the big picture is a lie.  Smith’s passer rating in the last two years settled at league average, but after given the starting job last year, he performed well.  His quarterback rating in December of last year was a robust 96.0.  In 2010 the 49ers tailored their game plan to Smith’s abilities, namely the spread offense, running out of shotgun more often than ever.  With more time under this offense Smith could potentially become a serviceable starter.  That may not seem like much for a former number 1 pick, but compared to the abysmal play we’ve seen in the past, it can be considered an achievement.

Regardless of circumstance, he still throws too many picks and makes too many bad decisions under pressure.  (Although shows that in important situations Smith doesn’t hurt the team as much as he does normally.  That’s just sad.)  I know that he will struggle in the most inopportune times (he has a 42.9 career passer rating in late and close games, so that’s pretty much assured).  I know he will never fulfill the expectations fans set for him in 2005, expectations that in retrospect he had no way of attaining.  I know that for many people, Smith brings nothing but bad memories and wasted potential.  I know that if he does fail yet again, I’ll be praying for the Niners to cut him.

I also know that until that happens, I’ll be rooting for him every week to succeed even as I curse him.  I remember what he meant to me, the team, and the fans hoping for the next great quarterback to lead the franchise.  I’ll hold onto every positive play, every positive step hoping that things finally turn the corner, and if it doesn’t come I’ll dream about the next quarterback we draft, hoping he will be the one that will finally take that throne.

But until that point, well, I’ll always have the memories of what could have been to hold me over.  Because that’s what being a sports fan is all about, right?

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