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 (Advancednflstatistics.com). 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.
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:
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:
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.
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.