By the Numbers - Week 12

I’m not a body language expert but I didn’t need to be one on Sunday night to know that Alex Smith is fuming about being dropped to the bench by the San Francisco 49ers.

And while Colin Kaepernick is now 2-0 as a starter and has shown some genuinely exciting playmaking ability, I tend to agree with Smith and I certainly think he has been very shabbily treated by head coach Jim Harbaugh.

Harbaugh has spent the past couple of weeks having some treatment on an irregular heartbeat but, thankfully, he is going to be okay and he was full of beans on the sidelines for San Francisco’s 31-21 win over New Orleans in Week 12. In the past few days, Harbaugh has certainly acted like he doesn’t have a heart at all, particularly when it comes to the quarterback who was supposedly “his guy.”

Now, I’m not so naïve as to think that a struggling quarterback should keep his job just because he is a nice guy and we feel sorry for the fact he has not succeeded in the NFL up to this point. The NFL is a ruthless, cut-throat, results-orientated business and most players and coaches would body-slam their own grandmothers if it got them a victory at the end of each hard-fought weekend.

But we’re not talking about a bad or struggling quarterback here. We’re talking about a guy who, in my opinion, would have been good enough to win a Super Bowl, particularly when supported by the league’s leading rushing attack and a smothering, aggressive and technically sound defense.

I said on Sky Sports last night that I thought Alex Smith had been a top 10 quarterback in the NFL over the past year and a half. Kevin Cadle was not sure about that but I stand by that comment and firmly believe that to have been the case.

I know it’s not all about statistics but Alex was the ninth-rated passer last season with just 5 interceptions thrown all year. And this season he was the third-ranked quarterback in the league with a rating of 104.1 before he and his uncanny accuracy were sent to the bench.

Of his last 27 passes in the NFL, Smith completed 25 of them. And that is no fluke. Remember earlier this season when he went 18 of 19 for 232 yards and 3 touchdowns against the Arizona Cardinals? He has been a 70 per cent passer this season and has thrown for 1,731 yards (proving he is not just dinking and dunking his way downfield) for 13 touchdowns and just 5 interceptions.

In my mind, Alex has been guilty of two things this season – a poor outing against the New York Giants and suffering a concussion against the St. Louis Rams. He has been outstanding the rest of the way and had the 49ers firmly on top of the NFC West Division.

And for that he has to ride the pine while the 49ers team he has led through ups and downs since 2005 chases the Super Bowl title he would so want to capture.

None of this is intended to be a knock on Kaepernick, who I think has a very bright future in this league. His physical tools have been clear for all to see in the past two weeks but what has been most impressive is the way he has handled being in the spotlight.

I really thought the occasion would be too big for him in the Superdome on Sunday evening but he rose to the task time and again in a very hostile environment.

And I think there were maybe three or four plays that Alex probably couldn’t have made. Smith is no slouch when it comes to moving around on a football field, but he cannot run like Kaepernick and probably would not have found the end zone on the 7-yard run that opened the scoring.

Kaepernick’s numbers were not mind-blowing as he hit on 16 of 25 passes for 231 yards, 1 touchdown and 1 interception. In fact, if he had worn a jersey with the name ‘SMITH’ on the back we would have been screaming the phrase “game manager!”

But the second-year quarterback made some big plays in key situations in just his second NFL start. For example, he did a great job of avoiding a blitz to hit fullback Bruce Miller for a 15-yard gain.

And there were times when the Superdome got deafeningly loud. Kaepernick didn’t even blink. Backed up on his own 6-yard line late in the third quarter, Kaepernick had to drop into his own end zone and throw on 2nd and 8. The crowd roared the Saints defenders on but the young quarterback drilled a 15-yard completion to Michael Crabtree.

Lesser men have thrown pick sixes in those situations.

Then later on the drive, with the 49ers still only leading by seven and the crowd very much into the game, Kaepernick faced a 3rd and 11 at his own 35-yard line. Draw play to the running back or check down pass and punt? Nope. How about a 25-yard dart right down the middle of the field to tight end Delanie Walker?

It was impressive stuff.

So this move to Kaepernick is not about the second-year passer, to me. I like many things about Colin Kaepernick. This is about what kind of treatment Alex Smith deserved and what he clearly failed to receive from Harbaugh, who should know a thing or two about how to handle quarterbacks given his time under center with the Chicago Bears.

While the 49ers’ on-field performances have not suffered to date, there is a real danger that this quarterback situation (I won’t call it a controversy just yet) is going to become a distraction.

And Harbaugh is not helping. After this big win in New Orleans, Harbaugh barely pinned his colours to the Kaepernick mast and was non-committal on his future starter. Could it be that after all this Alex Smith really is still afflicted by the effects of his concussion and will be back soon?

I doubt that but the situation appears fluid, or is being presented as fluid by the 49ers and their head coach.

Harbaugh would do well to remember the old NFL adage that when you have two starting quarterbacks, you really don’t have a starting quarterback at all.

Tight end Vernon Davis threw even more confusion on the subject last night when he said after the game: “I think Alex is still the man. I’m sure Alex is still our guy.”

Those comments have to be tempered by the fact Davis did not have a catch on Sunday night. The week before when he had a big night against the Bears, Davis was bowing in front of Kaepernick, comparing the young passer to Tom Brady and claiming it “felt like somebody took the handcuffs off me.”

If nothing else, the San Francisco 49ers have become must-see viewing for the remainder of the 2012 season.

Now onto this week’s numbers…

8… I don’t care if the Pittsburgh Steelers have to wrap their star quarterback in cotton wool this week. I don’t care if they make him wear two flak jackets, two sets of shoulder pads and a cast-iron vest. I don’t care if the Steelers make their signal-caller look like the Michelin Man. I hate to see players risk their long-term health for short-term gain, but if there is a way around this in any form, the Pittsburgh Steelers simply have to find a way to get Ben Roethlisberger back in the starting line-up when they take on the Baltimore Ravens in Week 13. I really thought Charlie Batch would be able to play a clean game for the Steelers but his 3 interceptions hurt in Sunday’s 20-14 loss but he was not alone in being careless with the football. The Steelers fumbled an incredible 8 times and lost 5 of them, giving them a total of 8 turnovers on the day. That is shocking. You cannot win that way in the NFL when you don’t take care of the football. All four Steelers running backs fumbled on the day and it was hard to know who Mike Tomlin could trust with the football. Well, I know he can trust in Big Ben. The Steelers must be itching to get their star man back under center, although Pittsburgh are still in decent shape for a wild card spot right now. Many more days like Sunday though and they can forget all about the post-season, especially with the Bengals on the rise. That effort in Cleveland was just embarrassing.

47.5… That’s the average number of points being scored per game by the New England Patriots in their last four contests, including their Thanksgiving Day massacre of the New York Jets. The Pats have been rolling since Wembley when they put up 45 on the St. Louis Rams. They followed that up with 37 against Buffalo, 59 against the Colts and 49 against New York. Tom Brady remains one of the very best ever (he is on pace for 35 touchdowns and 4 interceptions this season) and is operating smoothly week in and week out, even with All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski sidelined with a broken arm this weekend. With the defense and special teams now creating turnovers with some ball-hawking play in the secondary and some fierce hitting, the Patriots are beginning to look really dangerous. Given their pedigree and the way they seemingly always start firing on all cylinders around Thanksgiving Weekend, the Patriots have to be considered genuine Super Bowl contenders out of the AFC. It certainly takes a brave man to bet against Bill Belichick and Brady at this time of the year.

0 of 10… With the Minnesota Vikings falling behind to the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field, Sunday’s 28-10 loss probably fell more onto the shoulders of Christian Ponder than Leslie Frazier would have liked. This was supposed to be a heavy Adrian Peterson game but the Vikings had to air it out a bit more than they would have liked as they trailed for much of the contest. And that highlighted Christian Ponder’s inability to throw deep downfield. This has not been a problem at times this season because Ponder has been able to dump the ball to wide receiver Percy Harvin and let him rack up yards after the catch. But Harvin was sidelined in this game and Ponder could not connect on plays down the field when asked to do so. He went 0 of 10 on passes of 10 yards or more, including an interception where his throw to Devin Aromashodu was so far off target it was unreal. Unfortunately, this poor performance was the continuation of Ponder’s struggles with the long ball. Heading into Sunday, Ponder had completed just 9 of 54 passes 21 yards or more downfield. Those kinds of numbers are going to need to improve if Ponder is to continue his growth as an NFL passer in 2013 and beyond.

Monday Musings…

  • It doesn’t matter how many times I watch it, and I totally get that offensive lineman Brandon Moore was being pushed backwards by Vince Wilfork on the play, but the clip of Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez running straight up the back of his own offensive lineman and getting floored is just funny. I’m not even amused by the fact the Patriots scored a touchdown off the return as Sanchez fumbled following the big hit. I’m all about the fact the quarterback simply raced into the bottom of his own offensive lineman at full speed and got taken down hard. I apologise to Jets fans one last time, but this was funny. Surely even the most die-hard Jets fan can see the funny side of this play now the game is done and dusted?
  • I can understand why Houston Texans fans might be concerned after they failed to slow the opposing team’s passing attack for the second straight game on Thanksgiving Day. A week after the Texans beat Jacksonville 43-37 in overtime, Houston ran out 34-31 overtime winners over the Detroit Lions. But I think those two results highlight just how tough these Texans are to beat in 2012. Jacksonville had them by two touchdowns but Houston found a way to win, leaning heavily on the passing attack and quarterback Matt Schaub. And this past Thursday the Texans dug deep to emerge victorious when they were basically out on their feet. Houston are showing they are capable of winning in a variety of ways and they  will gain confidence from that fact as the season progresses. Some critics suggest the AFC is the much weaker conference  this year but the leading four of Houston, Baltimore, New England and Denver looks pretty good to me. We’re in for some heavyweight playoff clashes come January, that’s for sure.
  • Good teams generally find a way to win close games and bad teams find a way to lose them. That was the case for the Baltimore Ravens and San Diego Chargers on Sunday night. The Ravens ran out 16-13 overtime winners but San Diego had a real chance to win 13-10 in regulation. Leading by three with 1:59 remaining, the Chargers were one simple play away from victory. All they had to do was hold the Ravens on a low-probability 4th and 29 play. The chances of success on that play become even slimmer when Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco dumped the ball to his check-down running back out of the backfield. Now, Ray Rice is a special back but surely this was asking too much? He still had 28 yards to go to get the first down. But, somehow, Rice found an extra gear, took advantage of some over-pursuit by the desperate San Diego defense and dived for an improbable first down. You could literally hear the air go out of the Chargers. They did hang on to force a field goal and almost forced a sister-kisser as time ran down in overtime, but the Ravens eventually got the win to move to 9-2 on the season. Baltimore are not the same team on the road, but they still have a shot at homefield advantage in the AFC playoffs and that would make them a very tough out come January.

Final Thought

Here they come again! The New York Giants put the rest of the NFL on notice with their 38-10 beatdown of the Green Bay Packers on Sunday night. Eli Manning, Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz had their moments on offense, but the New York pass rush (stop me if you’ve heard this before) took over the game and made life very difficult for Aaron Rodgers. With the pass-rush back on track, albeit against a Swiss cheese offensive line, the Giants are primed for a run at defending their Super Bowl title with a record of 7-4. They might have to do it the hard way and win some games along the way, but that’s normally how Tom Coughlin’s men like it. I think the 49ers are the class of the NFC this season but I’m nervous about writing off the G Men! They are now entering a big run of games down the stretch and as we know all too well, the Giants tend to play their best and win when their backs are against the wall. New York are very much a part of the conversation when discussing Super Bowl contenders in the run in to this wide open 2012 season.