Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Fallacy of the Hidden Quarterback and Week 7 Power Poll

I never thought I'd say this, but man, I miss working. Mainly, I miss watching good football. Six good/interesting clubs had a bye last week, including your Niners and my Eagles, and I think we can all agree that the league is a whole lot less interesting without Jim Harbaugh and Michael Vick (and Tom Brady and Eli Manning while we're at it). There were so many awful match-ups last Sunday and I can't think of one that surprised by turning into a good game. I spent my day at the bar ogling the bartender even more so than usual.

I didn't do much productive during the time off, just kept abreast of the league and tried to cull what I could about what the so-called experts are saying about the 49ers. Of course, all the talk is about Harbaugh and the miracles he's performing out here, and very little credit is being given to the actual players. Credit to Tim Kawakami for acknowledging the work of general manager Trent Baalke for his draft and free agent signings -- even if I wrote about that a week before he did.

There is one national story angle that's picking up some steam that's irking me a little though. You hear it from guys like Bill Simmons, Mike Lombardi, Peter King, and even the ex-scouts like Dave Razzano and Greg Cosell, that Harbaugh is somehow "hiding" or "protecting" Alex Smith. That the 49ers are winning in spite of him rather than because of him. Maybe that was true at Detroit, where Smith played poorly, but I think for the most part, it's a false narrative.

I want you to look at something.

QB A: 26.3
QB B: 28.8
QB C: 28.6

A is the number of pass attempts that Smith is averaging this season. Remember, he only had 19 at the blowout win over Tampa. B is the number that Andrew Luck is averaging for Stanford this season. C is what Luck averaged under Harbaugh last season.

Smith is generally thought of as one of the worst starting QBs in the NFL. Luck is thought of as the best quarterback prospect since Peyton Manning. Two attempts per game separate them.

Maybe, just maybe, Smith's statistics are more reflective of Harbaugh's run-first philosophy than any sense of fear or dread at having Smith wing it. If he played the same exact way with Luck, who just about any other college coach would've had in the spread throwing it 50 times a game, why wouldn't he with Smith? Remember, Harbaugh grew up idolizing Woody Hayes and played for Bo Schembechler at Michigan. He values the running game far more than people might expect him to as a former quarterback. He understands how it can get the offensive linemen in a rhythm, how it can destroy an opponent psychologically in a way the pass can't and how it can make the game so much simpler for the quarterback if the opposing front four has to honor the run first.

Harbaugh's offense works. It is still possible to run in the NFL if your guys have the appropriate talent and play with the proper technique (pad-level, angles, misdirections, etc.) Defenses these days are so programmed to go hell-bent for leather after the quarterback that it is possible to use that aggressiveness against them.

I'm not saying that Smith is in any way comparable to Luck or that I don't like watching teams like Green Bay or Manning's Colts pass it up and down the field. But variety is the spice of life and there's more than one way to skin a cat and all those cliches. David Shaw -- a former wide receiver -- took over for Harbaugh with Stanford, and it's telling that he's kept the same offensive system, where most Saturdays it seems that Luck is an afterthought. Why fix what isn't broken? Yet all the talk is how he's a Heisman candidate and a mortal lock to be drafted first overall. Nobody is saying he's being hidden or protected, because it would be a ludicrous statement.

If Tom Brady or Drew Brees was the starting quarterback for the 49ers, would they be averaging more than 26.3 pass attempts? Yeah, probably. But not much more, not with Harbaugh coaching. Dude likes to run the ball. Don't read into something that's not there.

Week 7 Power Poll:

1. Green Bay (7-0):
Undefeated, but certainly not invincible. Their defense has lost Nick Collins to injury and Cullen Jenkins and Nick Barnett to defection and they just aren't as good as they were last year. The Packers have given up 141 points. We think of the Lions as having a poor run defense and a weak secondary, and Detroit's given up 137. Maybe they'll re-focus during their bye, because the schedule is about to get tougher.

2. New England (5-1): Speaking of teams whose quarterbacks grew up cheering for the 49ers, the Pats move to the top AFC spot after a miserable showing by Baltimore on Monday. New England has squeaked by a couple of respectable opponents in Dallas and the Jets at home, but now they travel to Pittsburgh in a game that should tell us quite a bit about both teams. I'll have to tape it because of work (sigh).

3. Pittsburgh (5-2): I gotta boost the Steelers a bit after the impressive way they took care of business on Sunday. Sure, it was only Arizona, but the Cards are pretty spunky at home and it was a cross-country flight for Pittsburgh. Still, that game was never in doubt and Roethisberger continues to find his deep threats. Will they ever beat Brady though? That's the question.

4. New Orleans (5-2): I'm probably boosting them way too much for spanking the poor Colts, but I was very impressed by their three-headed rushing attack and I still feel their "A" game is better than just about anybody else's, except for the teams above. Another easy one on Sunday at St. Louis.

5. New York Giants (4-2):
They got to heal their wounds and rest up for the tough portion of their schedule, which starts in two weeks. On Sunday, they get the stinky fish. Brandon Jacobs is ready to contribute again and they've got a dangerous combination of a balanced offense and fierce pass rush right now.

6. San Francisco (5-1): Niners fans want a higher ranking, but it will come in due time if they earn it. For now, I think the five teams above would win on neutral fields. Jim Harbaugh owes his brother John a thank you. The way the Ravens let down at Jacksonville will provide an excellent teaching point about Freddy P. Soft leading up to what should be a drubbing of Cleveland.

7. Detroit (5-2): Forget Jahvid Best's concussion and their run defense and Ndamukong Suh's alleged trash-talking and all that noise. The real concern is that Matthew Stafford hasn't looked good for about a month, and he's got injury issues too. Shaun Hill may have to play this week. If they lose at Denver, then we could be looking at a total free-fall.

8. Baltimore (4-2):
What the shit was that, Flacco? It's getting so hard to defend this guy over and over. For whatever reason the Ravens offense just doesn't show up half the time, and it usually happens on the road. Now they're gonna take out their frustrations on poor (well, actually, quite rich) Kevin Kolb and the Cardinals.

9. New York Jets (4-3):
The week's big riser, and deservedly so. After a nightmarish start the Jets completely outplayed the Chargers in the second half and showed a lot of gumption on both sides of the ball. There were positive signs everywhere, from Plaxico Burress' red zone production, to Shonn Greene's running to the way they shut down San Diego's running game. Now they'll have two week's worth of good vibes to take with them to Buffalo after their bye to see if they can ever win another road game.

10. Chicago (4-3): Our other big riser. I can't ignore the Bears after their impressive win over Tampa in London. They harassed Josh Freeman into four turnovers and protected Jay Cutler well enough for the second straight week. Still a bit of a smoke-and-mirrors outfit, but Matt Forte keeps them in a lot of games. They travel to Philly a week from Monday in what should be a wild one.

11. San Diego (4-2):
You want to punish them and really drop them down a few spots, but then reality sets in and you realize their two losses were on the road to the Patriots and the Jets, hardly stiffs. It was another stink-bomb from Philip Rivers, but I continue to think he'll snap out of his funk once he gets a couple games to work with Antonio Gates. What alarmed me against the Jets was how many open receivers the Jets had the whole afternoon. The Chargers had a hell of a time beating the then-winless Chiefs at home a month ago, and now KC is red-hot and at home for a Monday-Nighter.

12. Houston (4-3):
Huge win on the road, just completely obliterating the Titans, their closest challenger in the AFC South. I'm not sure I can ever remember a game like that in Texans history. Schaub and Co. had no issues moving the ball (Arian Foster looks like he's back to 100 percent, doesn't he?) even without Andre Johnson and the defense shut down Chris Johnson -- which everyone does these days, but still. Another division tilt up next, this time at home with the Jags.

13. Cincinnati (4-2):
Interesting challenge coming up for rookie Andy Dalton and the young Bengals. On one hand, Seattle is the noisiest stadium in the league and a very imposing place to play on the road. On the other, the Seahawks are terrible, especially offensively. Should be a low-scoring affair, and Cedric Benson will have to miss it with a suspension.

14. Buffalo (4-2):
A mixture of good news and bad for the Bills. They're getting the Redskins at a time when they're decimated by injury and just about discombobulated. Unfortunately, they've had to put Shawne Merriman on IR with an Achilles problem and Aaron Maybin, their former 1st-round bust, has three sacks in the past four games for the rival Jets.

15. Tampa Bay (4-3): Josh Freeman continues his Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde routine and he was probably the biggest reason for their fruitless trip across the pond against a Chicago team they should've beat. Not only did he play poorly, but the Bucs lost Earnest Graham to a torn ACL, so there goes his security blanket on check-downs. They have a bye week to get LeGarrette Blount healthy and then a trip to New Orleans against a Saints team that will be looking for some revenge.

16. Atlanta (4-3): Alright, alright. An above-.500 record and a road win over Detroit gets you in the top half of the rankings. I still think this will be a temporary high for the flawed Falcons. Lets see after their bye they have... uh, at Indy. Well that certainly doesn't help my narrative.

*Lightning round*

17. Dallas (3-3):
Always nice to see my team's dreaded rivals run for a billion yards the week before they play the Eagles. How is Tony Romo supposed to blow it if he just keeps handing it off to DeMarco Murray?

18. Philadelphia (2-4):
One of the week's two most intriguing games is on prime time. What a novel concept. I think it'll come down to which team manages a better pass rush. I'm really not wild on the idea of Michael Vick having to make up a deficit in the fourth quarter against these guys.

19. Kansas City (3-3): It's pretty damn impossible to win 28-0 on the road when your QB played as badly as Matt Cassel did last Sunday, but that's just another example of the Kyle Boller magic for you, I guess. They've got a chance to tie for the AFC West lead on Monday, hosting Norvel's Chargers.

20. Oakland (4-2):
With Jason Campbell out, I see this ranking dropping and dropping in the near future. The first game after their bye will be against Denver, which threatens to be the worst quarterbacked game of the year -- and we've already had five or six strong candidates.

21. Carolina (2-5): Yeah, their defense is awful, but apparently not "lose to John Beck at home" awful. So I stand corrected. Battle of the rooks between cam Newton and Christian Ponder on Sunday.

22. Tennessee (3-3):
See, that's how I thought Matt Hasselbeck would play all year. I'm so happy to not have to think about them the rest of the year. Colts coming up on Sunday, so here's to the most meaningless 4-3 record in football history.

23. Cleveland (3-3):
How do you have the ball for 43 minutes and score six points? That has to be some kind of morbid record for inefficiency. The AFC North has the top four defenses, statistically-speaking, in the NFL. I'm not sure that will help the Brownies much against our locals.

24. Washington (3-3): They're on a one-way street and have realized it far too late. I hope Mike Shanahan enjoys Matt Barkley. They get to travel to T-dot to take on the Bills, and it might get ugly up there.

*The dregs*

25. Jacksonville (2-5):
The best of the worst. A frisky defense. A... decent uniform design. That's pretty much all I've got. Good luck to them at Houston. I can't believe I know two Jaguars fans.

26. Minnesota (1-6):
Christian Ponder didn't look half bad on Sunday. Neither did Donovan McNabb the past six Sundays. Maybe their problems go deeper than the QB. Ownership for one. Coaching, for another. Some bad apples in Bernard Berrian and Chris Cook. A rotten stew here, despite some quality ingredients.

27. Seattle (2-4):
Really no excuse to not score more than three at Cleveland, even with the second-stringers in the backfield. The offensive line continues to be a mess they can't fix, which isn't too surprising considering that Scot McCloughan works in their personnel department. They host the Bengals in a must-win if they have any hopes left of catching the Niners.

28. Denver (2-4): Tim Tebow is fucking terrible.

29. Arizona (1-5):
Their secondary shouldn't be this bad, considering the personnel, but it's not like they're getting much support from the front seven. Also not getting much support: Larry Fitzgerald.

30. Miami (0-6):
They've been in just about all of their games and would've won on Sunday had they recovered a simple onside kick. Instead, we've got to hear about the Tebow magic for a whole week. Just for that, they don't deserve Andrew Luck.

31. Indianapolis (0-7):
We kept wondering when exactly they would quit, and now we know. At Tennessee on Sunday in what should be an unwatchable affair.

32. St. Louis (0-6):
Every week they're trotting out what may be the slowest secondary that any NFL team has employed since the 1960's. And their defense is still better than their offense.

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