49ers, Smith winning without big passing game
Alex Smith and the San Francisco 49ers have been able to sneak by six straight opponents without throwing the ball much or taking chances down field.
This week might be different.
With Eli Manning and the New York Giants (6-2) coming to Candlestick Park on Sunday, points could pile up fast facing the kind of passing offense and quarterback the 49ers (7-1) haven't seen in recent weeks.
San Francisco might finally have to open up its 30th-ranked passing offense, which is gaining only 173.5 yards per game. That means Smith could have to throw more and play more like an elite quarterback and not just a game manager.
Whether or not Smith can do that is still a mystery.
Smith averages fewer than 26 pass attempts per game. When he has thrown more than 35 passes in a game, his record is 1-10, with the lone win coming against Jacksonville in 2009 when he threw 41 passes.
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman said the 49ers could ''most definitely'' win with Smith throwing 40 passes, a standard number for some of the NFL's most prolific quarterbacks.
''I think he plays the quarterback position at an elite level,'' Roman said Thursday. ''I think he's demonstrated that this year leading his team to a 7-1 record thus far. Alex does a lot of things very well. He's a very tough guy and he doesn't talk about it - those are the guys you have to worry about, the guys that don't talk a big game but show up and get it done.''
This has been a new year and another new offense for Smith.
After several disappointing seasons for the 2005 No. 1 overall pick out of Utah, Smith has turned boos into cheers at Candlestick. While his passing performances are relatively modest behind a stout running game led by Frank Gore, Smith has avoided the costly mistakes that sent the Niners spiraling in seasons past.
He has thrown 10 touchdowns and two interceptions, which are tied for the lowest in the NFL with Donovan McNabb - who has become a backup in Minnesota. Not to mention staying firm in the pocket and avoiding fumbles.
''I do think it is a skill,'' Smith said. ''It's tough to always practice in the true sense of the word, but I think there are things you can do. You look at the quarterbacks that have been the best at it across the board. Tom Brady sticks out in my mind. The guy takes a lot of pride in that, holding onto the football in the pocket and has been great at it for his whole career.''
What Smith hasn't shown yet this season is in an elite arm.
He averages about 7 yards per pass attempt, which ranks 16th in the NFL, dinking and dunking passes in coach Jim Harbaugh's version of the West Coast offense. Smith also is throwing for about 183 yards per game, which is 31st in the league.
But he has the passer rating (97.3) and the record (7-1) of a winning quarterback this year.
''The only stat that matters is winning,'' Roman said. ''Everything else is statistical analysis and information gathering. Whatever we need to do to win we'll do, and if it's throwing it, if it's running it, whatever that equation is on a week-to-week basis, we'll do. Everything else really is water cooler talk.''