Add the voice of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith to those decrying the increasing use of stats to evaluate football performance. Usually, it's former head coaches unhappy about the numbers (used, as they sometimes are, to help describe why said former head coaches lost their jobs), but in Smith's case, he's tired of the stats despite his 2011 season, in which he finally played with some of the efficiency and consistency expected of the first overall pick in the 2005 NFL draft.
When asked before the 49ers' divisional playoff win over the New Orleans Saints if he might someday throw for more yards in a season than Drew Brees, or some of the NFL's other more high-octane quarterbacks, Smith was quite defiant.
"I really don't care," Smith said. "I'm looking to outscore him. He can throw for as many yards as he wants."
So there! The 49ers did indeed outscore the Saints on their way to a close NFC championship loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants, and in the 2012 season, more will certainly be expected of Smith. He played the caretaker role for Jim Harbaugh in 2011, throwing just five interceptions and helping San Francisco's unflashy-but-effective offense as the 49ers shocked the league with a 13-3 record. He also had career highs in pass attempts (445), completions, (273), passing yards (3,144), and his second-highest touchdown total (17). Now, Smith is being asked if he's ready to bust out with bigger numbers ... and the answer is, he really doesn't care.
"I could absolutely care less on yards per game," Smith told Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle on Wednesday. "I think that is a totally overblown stat because if you're losing games in the second half, guess what, you're like the Carolina Panthers and you're going no-huddle the entire second half. Yeah, Cam Newton threw for a lot of 300-yard games. That's great. You're not winning, though."
Well, hold on there, Huckleberry! Cam Newton smashed many of the NFL's rookie passing records in 2011, and I would argue that he did do a lot of winning -- he took the worst team in the league and helped pull it to a six-win season. Now, the Panthers are rightfully seen as a fringe playoff contender, and Newton is the primary reason. In fact, it could be argued that Newton did everything Smith could not in 2005 -- take a horrible team to the next level with his own play as the first pick in the draft.
It's a bit easier for Smith to say these things now, buttressed as he is by a dynamic rushing attack and supported by one of the NFL's best defenses. Joe Flacco has tried that whole "I'm just winning" thing as well, but he's very much in Smith's camp -- aided severely by his defense and running game.
Total yards may not matter, but can Smith become the kind of quarterback capable of transcending the average and putting a team on his back? That's the real question for any quarterback looking to find that mysterious "elite."
"We're up in the third and fourth quarter and naturally you're going to be in four-minute offense," Smith said of the wisdom behind the 49ers' more conservative game plan. "You're going to be grinding it out. You're going to be running the ball a lot more and you're not going to have as many 300-yard passing games."
Again, that's a valid point, but two of the three games the 49ers lost in the regular season had Smith throwing no touchdowns. He did a great job in the playoffs for the most part -- his performance against the Saints was a career-builder, and it wasn't entirely his fault that San Francisco's passing attack went south against the Giants. One of the reasons the 49ers acquired receivers Randy Moss and Mario Manningham, and selected Illinois' A.J. Jenkins on the first round of the 2012 draft, was that Smith's receivers -- not tight ends and running backs -- caught one ball for 3 yards on nine targets in that NFC championship loss.
So, things are better set up for Smith than at any time in his career. However, the responsibility will increase for him as the expectations do -- and if he can't up his own game a little bit, those comments about the relative unimportance of stats will be seen more as excuses than truisms.