All 49er fans now know--along with the rest of the national NFL audience--how good the 49ers defensive unit is, especially when it doesn't have to spend 35+ minutes on the field. The 49ers defensive scheme--a filled spread formation which effectively cut off the short to middle route passing game at which Arizona QB Kurt Warner excels--worked to perfection, and could all by itself have promised victory--had the 49ers anything like a normal, effective offensive unit. But it took 2 interceptions and 5 fumbles for the Niners to overcome their division rivals, and here's the reason why: Alex Smith.
As I've been harping about for the last two months, Alex Smith isn't an NFL quarterback. He lacks the special qualities which all successful QB's must possess in order to be a winner.
In Monday's game, Smith threw two interceptions. But the fact is, for those of us who were paying attention--not letting our surprised and delighted emotions cloud our judgment--that Smith actually "threw" four interceptions--the Arizona defenders just failed to catch those other two. How do you suppose the game would have turned out, had those other two balls been caught by the Arizona defensive backs?
Even with 7 turnovers, the outcome was still in doubt as late as the middle of the fourth quarter. Credit the SF defense for putting pressure on Warner, and for taking away his first and second options on several plays; since Warner isn't a scrambler or an improviser like Rothlisberger, he can be neutralized if you can deny him his first target, since he doesn't move well outside the pocket.
Much has been made of the "improved" San Francisco offense, since the team went with the shotgun or "spread offense" scheme under Smith. Singletary started the year using Hill, emphasizing the run. The fact is, that under Hill, the 49ers were performing much better, game on game, than they were with Smith. Why? Because Hill was a ball control quarterback.
A lot of nonsense is thrown around about great quarterbacks. Certainly Peyton Manning is a great quarterback. So was Dan Marino. These talents excelled at throwing the ball often, and throwing it long. But consider the skills and approach of Joe Montana. Montana is credited with guiding the 49ers to four Super Bowl victories, and 12 years of glory. What kind of a QB was Montana? A ball control, short gain, opportunistic QB! The West Coast Offense, largely invented by Bill Walsh and utilized by him to produce all those wins for The City by the Bay, was designed to control the game through short passes, taking what the defense gave it, and generally avoiding the long downfield passes which were the hallmark of the wide-open style of some famous NFL offenses ("Air Coryell" et al).
The fact is that the wide open offense is on the ascendancy in the NFL today. The West Coast Offense has largely been abandoned, as more and more teams feature a high-scoring, high-risk passing-oriented approach. And it's worked. Look at the successful teams today, and what you find is that ball control--a methodical offense built around 5 yards and a cloud of dust--doesn't work anymore. Successful teams today have to expect routinely to score 30 points or more, usually in high-scoring affairs where the last team to have possession wins.
Singletary's retro vision of a smash-mouth, grind-it-out style was obviously passe. But with the world class defensive unit he's been blessed with, he could be forgiven for believing in the impossible. What might the 49ers have done with a truly aggressive, accurate, savvy mid- to long-range quarterback this year? There's been the usual excuse-making about Smith's shoulder injury, the difficulties of having to work with a different offensive coordinator each year--poor baby!--but the facts speak to other causes for his failures. There have been a few instances in which they've asked him to attempt the rare surprise long pass late in games--with disastrous results!--but on the whole, his shortcomings have been no one's fault but his own.
But the fact remains, as anyone with unjaundiced eyes can see, Alex Smith isn't that quarterback. He repeatedly makes wrong decisions, throws into coverage, and can't find his second or third option. Is he gun-shy, flustered, or just phlegmatic? Does he "get it"--i.e., does he have sufficient gumption to respond to emergencies and crises the way superior athletes do in the clutch? It hardly seems so.
Singletary may be forgiven for capitulating to necessity, and trying to determine, once and for all, whether Smith can step in and perform at the high level required of successful NFL quarterbacks. But the evidence continues to mount: Smith isn't the man, and the sooner the Niners acknowledge that, and get to work replacing him with a superior talent, the sooner they'll be contenders again.