Smith Takes a Drive, but the D Holds the Key

Aug 24, 2010 at 9:08 AM21

As Alex Smith was directing what would become a 12-play, 70-yard touchdown drive against the Vikings' starting D--after he'd dropped back, stood tall, zipped through his reads, and fired a strike--Cris Collinsworth said it perfectly. He captured what we all were thinking, giving voice to both how little we've come to expect and how much we've striven to hope.

"That looks like some quarterback play right there!"

Indeed, Cris. We barely recognize, but we remember. We've had some decent quarterbacks, after all.

And yeah, that was quarterback play.

With great assistance from his offensive line, Smith was 5 for 6 for 59 yards and 3 third-down conversions. But as usual, the numbers don't begin to tell the tale. Facing one of the league's best Ds, and doing it without his three best weapons, it would've been perfectly easy for Smith to lay another egg and let the excuses fly. We heard plenty of those last week. But impressively--and surprisingly--Mike Singletary said he'd had enough.

"I've heard, 'Alex Smith [can't] play without Gore, without Vernon, without Crabtree,' " he said. "But, to me, if you're a good quarterback, you have to make the situation better."


That's what's been wrong with ALL these so-called "Alexcuses." The rotating offensive coordinators, the injuries, the dubious supporting casts. Sure, those haven't helped. But you're the quarterback, son. You're the leader. You were drafted #1, and you make a lot of dough. So don't point any fingers. Just do your job. Be the man.

Make the situation better.

That's what Smith did on that opening drive. With each pass--especially on those third downs--you kept expecting him to revert: to bail out of the rush, to throw into coverage, to miss high and wide. And again and again, he just didn't do it. His pocket presence was strong, his decisions were sound, and his throws were on target. Quite simply, he was every bit as good as he'd been.


Of course, one drive does not a QB make, and it was disappointing to see no reprise. After those 12 plays for 70 yards, Smith ran another 14 for 37. Smith didn't do anything wrong, though, proving that even on his game he's no match for our stultifying offensive philosophy.

A creative offensive mind will strategize, attacking where the defense is weak, forsaking his personal preferences where necessary. We don't do that here. Here we RUN, no matter what, even against an elite rushing D.

In Smith's half, we had 11 first-down plays. We ran on 10, for a total of 7 yards. (The 1 pass gained 12.) A run-first O, into the teeth of a run-first D.

Is it any wonder that Smith could sustain only one drive?

Make no mistake, Smith has a long way to go. We've seen all this before. A perfect throw here, a flawless drive there, a brilliant quarter here, a solid half there. He keeps dangling that carrot, riling us up about his limitless potential, just in time for a giant step back. He had a nice game, but it'll take many more to earn our belief. By now he's lost the benefit of the doubt.

But if Singletary insists on putting him in third-and-eight every drive, how good he is won't matter at all. As we did Sunday--and all of last year--we'll score a little and punt a lot, and place our fate in the hands of our D.

I truly loathe that style of play. I'll say this, though. Our D just might be up to the task.

In all the drama surrounding Singletary and Smith, it's easy to forget all about Greg Manusky. Of course, most NFL fans have never heard of him to begin with. But this guy's quietly becoming a genius.

Often, a coach is deemed great when all he does is send out great players who play great. But the REAL measure of a coach is whether his whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Manusky's got just one great player: all-world linebacker Patrick Willis, who greeted Brett Favre with all due brutality. Yet his D's on the cusp of genuine greatness.

By definition, a 3-4 defense demands creativity, the constant shuffling of alignments, blitzes, and stunts. Still, when you've got two legit sack artists at outside 'backer--see, for example, those damnable Cowboys--the coach's job is pretty simple. Just send 'em.

By now we know that Manny Lawson and Parys Haralson aren't good enough for that. So Manusky's forced to be even MORE creative, and his results are virtually unbelievable. Despite a paltry 6½ from last year's leading sacker (Lawson), his D on the whole was third in sacks, and on Sunday he conjured up constant pressure, including 8 QB hits and 4 sacks by 4 players. In the end he allowed only two yards per pass, and in a pass-first league, that's a serious thing.

"I would love to have the ultimate two pass-rushers off the edge, of course," Manusky said. "But, for the most part, it's the system." In other words, it's not the players, it's the coach. Let's hope the secret never gets out.

The question, though, is whether Singletary will ask too much. Just as he can't ask Smith--or anyone--to repeatedly convert on third-and-long, he can't ask his D to repeatedly win games seven to three. It's not fair. And it won't work.

Smith might lead a nice drive or two. But for us to be great, our O must be as creative as our D.

Maybe Manusky can run that too.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


  • Rayshelon
    AFAIC that's the best answer so far!
    Jun 4, 2011 at 8:11 PM
  • tlo
    Mr. Jeff please answer this question for me. What do the 49ers have to do this year for you to admit you were wrong about coach singletary, raye, and alex smith? And that goes for all of the rest of the haters. Because once we get to the playoffs don't switchup then. Please give me a reply.
    Aug 29, 2010 at 9:21 PM
    Response: Okay, TLO. First, I object to being called a "hater." I don't hate the 49ers. I love them, at least as much as you do, and I'm desperate, truly DESPERATE, to see them return to their rightful place on top of the league. I just doubt that Singletary, Raye, and Smith have what it takes to get us there. And that's the answer to your question: I'll admit I was wrong when they get us there. That's not to say I'll admit I was wrong "once we get to the playoffs"; in this division, they should get us to the playoffs if they're even REMOTELY competent. When they make us champions again, when they make us truly GREAT again, THEN I'll admit I was wrong. And in making that admission, I'll be the happiest man on the face of the earth.
  • Shane
    STL Niner fan, I totally agree we have all the talent in the world. I'm just hoping we use it and I'm rooting for you to be right and myself, Jeff and pretty much every other niner fan I know to be wrong. It is nice we all agree the talent is there, now let's use it! It's funny because you look at this change in power in the NFL: The Steelers, a team known for being smash-mouth football and D for so long, now all they do is chuck it. Miami broke out with the wildcat O, yet you see their number one priority is Henne, and they bring in Brandon Marshall (a head case). Why, they want to pass. In cold NE and Philly they play fun and gun. Their "run" plays are swing passes. 3 of 4 of the final teams were aerial attacks, so on and so on. It's a passing league. As Jeff said, a strong running game is a GOOD thing, we all believe that, but let's be honest, in this league the pass opens up the run. I'm on this new era pass-first bandwagon, and I got a seat right next to me for coach sing!!! Come on up coach I'm saving it just for you!
    Aug 26, 2010 at 8:36 AM
  • Terry B.
    STL Niner Fan: I certainly understand the desire to be optimistic at this point in the preseason, but I think the evidence points against Singletary/Raye being more dynamic and unpredictable in 2010. Two pieces of evidence convince me of this. First, the draft. You don't spend your first two picks on Iupati and Davis if you're planning a wide open finesse passing game. Those are your picks if you want to pound the ball. To me, these picks show that Singletary wants to do the same thing he did last year only better. Second, if they are going to be dynamic this year, then Smith desperately needs the reps. Remember, with all the time he's spent either injured or not playing or both, he's gotten far fewer reps than he otherwise would have after 5 years in the league. The fact that Singletary would rather repeatedly pound a sixth-round running back into the teeth of the Minnesota defense than give Smith the reps he desperately needs tells us everything we need to know.
    Aug 26, 2010 at 8:05 AM
  • STL Niner Fan
    Shane and Terry B make good points for sure. I guess all I'm saying is don't get too worked up over the preseason. History has shown that preseason trends mean absolutely nothing in terms of projecting regular season success/failure. My thoughts on the upcoming season are these - a) we have the talent to make it to the SB. I truly believe that. We have a top-notch defense and plenty of talent on offense to score points. b) Singletary/Raye will learn from the mistakes made last year in the playcalling and be more dynamic and unpredictable on offense during 2010. Think of it this way - we really came very close to making the playoffs last year even with all our faults - and there were many - on offense. So cheer up! Abandon the doom and gloom for at least a couple more weeks until you've had a chance to witness this team perform in a real meaningful game. If they come out sputtering on offense and lose against a weak team like SEA then I think it's time to panic.
    Aug 26, 2010 at 7:13 AM
  • Shane
    STL Niner Fan: It's ok man i was once in denial as well, i was the most optimistic guy on this site, but i will have to be shown change at this point to believe. I think another reason why we were near the bottom of the league in run atts last year is we played a fair amount from behind (ironically cuz of our slow starts due to RRP Punt) which led to increasingly throwing the ball. Anytime we had a lead it was 3 runs and a cloud of dust, which is why we had so few possessions. A vanilla O in the preseason is not my concern nor really the point of the article (IMO). It's the coaching mentality that is the problem. I understand you want to challenge the running game against Minn's run D but doesn't he understand NO team will run up the middle all day on a good D? also don't we have a WR battle going on, don't we have a brand new RT that shld be working on his pass protection, and a QB that shld be working on his game feel and accuracy? none of these things concern Sing. He just wants to run run run and then is actually disappointed when it doesn't work like he really believes it wld. That's what's scary. We are starting to learn why raye was unemployed and wasn't a top choice OC.
    Aug 25, 2010 at 4:38 PM
    Response: You got it, Shane. Okay, so Singletary wanted to see if he could run against the Vikes. Fine. But how is it a fair test when all you're doing is running up the gut every first down? That won't work against ANYONE, much less a D like the Vikes'. That's what's so strange. No one denies that it's nice to have a strong running game. But to Singletary, running strong means running FIRST. Why?
  • NickSh49
    "Quite simply, he was every bit as good as he'd been. Ever." Jeff, I advise you go back and watch the SF @ JAX game from 2009. Hell, go back and watch the SF @ AZ game from 2006. Alex has played great games in the past. Everyone around here seems to just have a selective, short-term memory. "You were drafted #1, and you make a lot of dough. So don't point any fingers. Just do your job. Be the man. Make the situation better." I'd like to note that none of the starters we currently have on offense BESIDES Alex were in the starting lineup in 2005. Just saying, they aren't excuses. It's just reality.
    Aug 25, 2010 at 1:55 PM
  • Terry B.
    STL Niner Fan: There are lies, damned lies, and statistics. Be careful about reading too much into the fact that we were 30 out of 32 in rushing attempts. This isn't because we were running a high-octane take no prisoners passing attack but rather because we never had the ball. I'll give you one guess as to which team led the NFL in number of punts. You can find the answer on ESPN's stats page. It's hard to pile up a lot of rushing attempts when you're always punting the ball away.
    Aug 25, 2010 at 1:37 PM
  • STL Niner Fan
    Well I agree the play calling left much to be desired last year - especially when we actually had any kind of a lead. If your fear and pessimism is rooted in the fact you believe it will be more of the same....well I could understand that. My hope is that Jimmy Raye version 2.0 will be a much more balanced attack than it was last year. Actually for all the talk about Singletary's intent on running the football we were actually last or close to last in rushing attempts during 2009. I think the key to this offense, and this was a big problem last year, is to not be predictable on down and distance situations. One other thing I think this team needs to develop is a killer instinct. Just because we have a 7-10 point lead does not mean we need to go into conservative mode. I can only hope that Singletary and Raye learned a bit from their mistakes last year and will improve upon these areas during 2010. However, I don't think we'll gain any insight one way or the other from watching how these preseason games unfold. Whatever happens this year, I truly believe this team has the talent to make a deep push in the playoffs. I just hope we don't screw it up. Who knows, win the SB? Maybe?
    Aug 25, 2010 at 7:05 AM
  • Terry B.
    Not exactly, Reg. All we learned was that Dixon could not run against a strong defense. That doesn't mean Gore can't. If I understand most of the posters here correctly, Singletary wanted to use this game to find out if pounding a sixth-round running back into the teeth of the league's stoutest run defenses is a recipe for success. I probably would have used my preseason games differently, but to each his own. And to all those who want to talk about our vanilla O and Sing not wanting to show anything, shouldn't we also assume that the Vikings were not throwing everything they had at Smith on that opening drive? I would also be careful about betting a paycheck on Singletary having a new vision for the O. He didn't spend his first two picks on Davis and Iupati to implement a finesse passing game. Those picks show exactly what he has in mind. Also, if Davis continues to pass block the way he has, we will have no choice but to run, run, run (and punt, punt, punt).
    Aug 25, 2010 at 5:56 AM
  • oldmanniner
    Last year's Minn game is instructive: 0 for 17(?) on third down. Hoping that the O is opened up this year. Decent receivers & Westy should make any O coach salivate.
    Aug 25, 2010 at 5:05 AM
  • Reg
    My only comment is that Coach Sing wanted to see if we could run against a strong defense. He learned that the team is not there yet. Last year, once Smith took over, Sing opened up the playbook some. I will bet my next paycheck that the playbook will look a lot different when the season starts. So I will be patient and watch the preseason unfold. Go Niners!!!
    Aug 24, 2010 at 7:17 PM
  • overthemiddle
    Well Jeff you finally have omitted Smith from the problem. The prob with the Niners for the last 8 years has been the headcoaching. Even tho I do like Nolan and Singletary for the men that they are it is becoming more apparent Singletary's vision probably isn't going to work. I will give Singletary and Smith this one last year to see what they are about. I do believe there is enough talent on this team to win the superbowl, however the NFC championship game would suffice for me to say come on back for another year. Nothing wrong with the offense playbook, you can win with that, it's the playcalling, it's some of the worst in the 45 years I have watched this team.
    Aug 24, 2010 at 6:47 PM
  • Shane
    Ps: Josh Morgan anyone? Last time I saw him was on a milk carton. He was our #1 WR that game, not one ball thrown his way. Jeff, is he struggling or is this more Sing madness? I'm glad Walker played well but I'm now very concerned raye's offense just is not putting any emphasis on the WRs (not one shot from Smith to Ginn downfield). I'm becoming ill....
    Aug 24, 2010 at 2:47 PM
    Response: Good question about Morgan, Shane. Frankly we haven't seen enough of him to know whether he's struggling, but there's no doubt that our O relies on its WRs more as blockers and decoys than as targets. I'm sure that Crabtree will catch his share of balls, but I suspect there'll be nothing but scraps for the rest of the WRs, including Morgan. And yeah, that's "more Sing madness."
  • STL Niners Fan
    Wow, you really don't get it do you? IT'S PRESEASON. Why on earth would we allow the league to accumulate tape on our offense? Singletary admitted publicly he wanted to see if we could run the ball on their D-Line. Who cares if we didn't get creative? IT'S PRESEASON. Let me say that again - IT'S PRESEASON. Would you prefer we game plan and expose our playbook during a meaningless game just so you can sleep better at night? Really? There is no game planning in preseason. There is no creativity in the play calling. At best it's simply a way to measure individual performances. For instance, I think one thing we can take away from these games so far is that clearly Anthony Davis is going to struggle as he adjusts to the NFL game. False starts and failing to block your assignment...or failing to even recognize your something that will most likely carry over into the regular season. Game planning and gameday play calling is something you will not...and should not...get a feel for during the preseason. One thing I will agree on though is Manusky has done an excellent job. Mind you though this opinion has nothing to do with what I've seen in the preseason.
    Aug 24, 2010 at 2:46 PM
    Response: I hear you, STL. I don't deny that generally it's risky to infer a team's creativity (or lack thereof) from its preseason strategy (or lack thereof). But I think I'm on solid ground here, because this is the same O that we ran into the ground last year, even during the games that counted. You're free to disagree with me, but I think I have every reason to fear that our O is vanilla not because it's the preseason but because this year, like last year, we'll be running a vanilla O.
  • Shane
    Jeff, I have thrown in the towel. I can't take this, you're 100% right. I have officially hit the panic button! Our running game is not what concerns me. You can't judge how well a team runs the ball based on charging up the gut consistently against any team, especially the best run D in the league! My concern is we have a coach so stubborn/dumb that he feels like he HAS to run the ball at all costs in a PASS FIRST league. This is sickening! Those stats are unreal. 10 of 11 FDs, run up the middle? The 9ers led the league in 3rd and 8+ last year? yet we ignore that on the one pass play, 12 yards. We ignore all this data only to demand "we will run the ball!" It's a major concern that our coach doesn't understand that it's easier to stop the run than it is to run. As Ron Burgundy once said, "it's just physics." Look at the teams that run the ball well, it's the pass that opens up the run. The league has changed every rule to favor the pass. The days of running to open the pass are over. Another great point, How well is Smith going to do on 3rd and 8 every drive? Sing's quote, "I'm frustrated we didn't run the ball better" shows me he doesn't understand modern football cuz every1 else does.
    Aug 24, 2010 at 2:46 PM
  • Dan
    It all comes down to consistency. Forget everything you think you know about football. At this point Alex needs to play football as a person who loves the GAME. He should strive to make the play and avoid turnovers. It doesn't matter if we have to punt once in a while, you're right Jeff our defense is THAT good, as long as we aren't punting out of our own redzone like so many times last year. Special teams should help with that. One of the things that most impresses me is the depth that this team has developed at almost every position. Even our line is solid enough to absorb an injury. I credit the level of accountability coach is holding the players to for that. Nice job of not ripping on the coach this post by the way Jeff. BTW: I've seen video of Jimmy Raye talking football and he sounds very knowledgeable. I just want to open that discussion a little, I know everyone wants to see results, and they will come, but I think there have been some harsh criticisms of his football knowledge recently that come from difference of opinion rather than his actual level of expertise.
    Aug 24, 2010 at 1:37 PM
  • Johnny
    I agree 100% about the first down play selection. How can you say don't get worried yet? This is what we did ALL of last year was run up the gut on first and second down for 4 total yards AT BEST and we were in 3rd and long for a majority of all last season. Apparently the coaching staff hasn't realized what everyone else already knows. You CANNOT consistently be in 3rd and 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 or 11 and expect to win. It just won't happen and there's nothing you can do to argue that point. If manning was consistently in 3rd and long all day every game, he wouldn't be as successful either. The play calling is horrendous! I'm happy to see continuity with the OC, but I'm sorry we had to settle on Jimmy Raye. It's too bad, it looks as if we are going to waste all the talent we have on this team for another year of .500 football. They need to mix the gameplan up bottom line, I was at the game vs. MIN in the stands as a fan, and I called the first down plays to a T! If I can do it, I am positive that a professional NFL defense can read it as well. I love singletary and his motivational skills but the man is soooo stubborn it's really gonna end up killing us rather than helping.
    Aug 24, 2010 at 12:45 PM
  • Glen D
    Entirely agree with the complete article with one caveat. Post game Singletary pointed out that they wanted to test the run against the best run D in the game. While we didn't exactly pass this test, it means that in a non-preseason (read: meaningful) game, we likely wouldn't see 10 out of 11 first down plays run right up the gut. Probably more like 8 out of 11, but at least a little variation would exist, forcing the defense to back off a little for fear of being burned by a Davis seam route or a Crabtree cut across the middle in the gap. We have little choice but to endure another season of "ready, fire, aim" when it comes to play selection, but don't get too hung up about play selection yet, just as you shouldn't get too hung up about a successful 8 minutes in the life of Alex Smith.
    Aug 24, 2010 at 11:47 AM
  • Darrell G
    New meds Jeff? Not your usual...... J/K.... good article, can't disagree on your points here. I'm cautiously optimistic about our offense. Smith looked really good on that drive and then I saw draw play, draw play, draw play and Dixon like a deer in the headlights. I HOPE that they are just chaining the Kraken during pre-season to give limited film for the first 4 to 6 games, arguably the toughest part of the schedule. I do agree that it should be irrelevant who is in there, the QB's job doesn't change, some players like the big 3 just make it easier. I would also add the caveat that Frank would have got things done, been open, known the protections, sneaked into the flat on that 3rd and long, etc.
    Aug 24, 2010 at 10:47 AM
  • dan b.
    sigh....Why oh why can't we get a good OC? Is it really that hard to find an OC somewhere between Martz and Raye? It was SO maddening to see that we ran basically the exact same play on first down every new set of downs. We make their defensive coordinator's job way too easy....
    Aug 24, 2010 at 10:04 AM

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