A week ago, discussing the difficulties the Niners will face in repeating last year's stunning success, we talked about a statistically likely "regression to the mean." According to Wikipedia—the lazy writer's most helpful resource—regression to the mean "is the phenomenon that if a variable is extreme on its first measurement, it will tend to be closer to the average on a second measurement." In other words (and more importantly, in simpler words): things don't go your way for long.

As we discussed, last year most things went our way. Thus, this year, they likely won't. (Cue Brandon Jacobs on Aldon Smith's cart.)

But here's the good news. Obviously, a regression in some areas can be overcome—or at least counteracted—by a progression in other areas. And the Niners surely had room to progress, particularly in one notable area.

Stop me if you've heard this one, but the Niners could do a bit more with their passing game.

As I said during my—shameless plug alert—interview on the Blog Talk Radio show "2-Minute Drill," the best way (or is it the only way?) for the Niners to improve this year is to convert a few of last year's crazy 44 field goals into touchdowns, and the best way for the Niners to do that is to add some explosiveness to their passing game. This, of course, is hardly news; Trent Baalke spent his entire offseason collecting weapons for Alex Smith. The last piece of the puzzle, though, wasn't any of those acquisitions. It was, instead, what was already here.


Let's start by giving credit where it's due. After six years of ups and downs—mostly downs—Smith proved last year that he was good. He was carefully managed, of course; but in light of all those awful years, becoming steadily efficient was no small feat. And, at times, he was more than that; at times, indeed, he was simply great. I needn't remind you of Exhibit A, those last four minutes against the Saints. I dare you to show me four better minutes—or at least four better non-Super-Bowl minutes—by any quarterback who ever lived.

So Smith showed he was capable of producing explosive plays. But when a team kicks 44 field goals, it needs a lot more explosive plays. And when the Niners flirted with Peyton Manning—regardless of whether they merely "evaluated" him—they did so for a reason, one reason alone.

They doubted that Smith could deliver.

Yet doubts are nothing new for Smith, and training-camp reports suggested that he was up to the challenge. Beat-writers raved that Smith was our best offensive player, going deep with confidence and rarely letting the ball hit the ground. Jim Harbaugh, having declared last year that Smith was "elite," now added that Smith was an "expert" in Harbaugh's intricate scheme. There was no mistaking the implication: this year Smith will maximize the scheme's potential, as well as his own. He'll make those more explosive plays. He'll convert those field goals into TDs.

He'll open up the Niners' world.

The preseason, of course, is not the time to be showing your opponents your new open world. But you can't just count on flipping a switch when the games start to matter. That's why I told my interviewer that all I wanted, during our upcoming game against Houston, was "just a little taste, to show that [we] do have that potential in a game situation to really come up with some big-time passing plays, especially in the red zone, to get some touchdowns."

And boy, did Smith have the perfect chance.

You know the play. Opening drive, second-and-seven at the Texans' 26. To Smith's left, Randy Moss is facing one-on-one coverage. Now any "expert," in any offense, is going to do two things. First, he's going to notice this. And second, upon receiving the snap, he's going to look to be throwing to Moss. It doesn't matter what the assigned progressions are. When Moss is one-on-one outside, an "expert" is gonna start smelling a touchdown. And damn it all, he's gonna go for it.

Evidently, Smith never even saw Moss juke his defender and cruise, wide open, into the end zone. Instead, he locked onto Vernon Davis on a shallow cross, and delivered a pass that Davis dropped. Admittedly, Davis should've caught that ball, and he should've gained a first down or more. But instead of seizing the chance for the touchdown, Smith didn't even notice it. And predictably enough, the drive ended with three, not seven.

Over the years, Moss has taken a lot of flak for bitching when throws don't go his way. But on Saturday, he was fully entitled to wonder what he was doing here.

You may say, if you wish, that I'm overreacting, but I was demoralized by that play. Last year, and repeatedly, Smith failed to exploit opportunities for explosive plays. Of course, last year, he'd been trained to be cautious. But this year these weapons are here for a reason. They're here to create the one thing we lacked last year, a consistently explosive O. But it's still Smith who must throw 'em the ball. And on Saturday, it was still Smith who didn't.

Damn it, Alex. I want so much to believe in you. Oh, sure, I've declared an end to your Niners career, at least a half-dozen times. As recently as a year ago, I predicted that Colin Kaepernick would beat you out this preseason, if you were even around here at all. (Why Kaepernick seems to be not even close is a disturbing issue for another day.) And even as you were piling up fourth-quarter comebacks, I resisted, demanding to see more yards and scores.

But then came that Saints game, when, as I wrote, you "stole my heart." The naysayers pointed out that you'd had countless other such "breakthroughs" before, only to then, shall we say, regress to the mean. And then they pointed to your showing against the Giants, and they rested their case.

I believed, though. I believed that the Saints you was the real you, unleashed at last. I believed that the Giants game was due to your lack of weapons, not to any regression of yours. I believed that once you had those weapons, nothing would stop you. And then Baalke got you those weapons, and Harbaugh said you were on your way.

But then, Randy Moss streaked uncovered into the end zone, and you didn't even see him.

And in that instant, in more ways than one, I could not believe.