In terms of quarterbacks who played college football in the state of Utah, it appears that the Washington Redskins have the wrong one. While few in the NFL thought much of either former Brigham Young star John Beck or former Utah star Alex Smith entering this season, the Redskins might squeal in joy if they employed the latter rather than the former.
Look at the San Francisco 49ers’ formula for success, which has netted them a near-perfect record after Sunday’s 19-11 victory at FedEx Field: Strong ground game + stout defense + solid special teams = 7-1.
The quarterback’s part in the equation is simple: don’t screw it up.
The Niners entered Sunday with the NFL’s fewest pass attempts per game, 26.4. Smith has responded with his best season ever. He had a career passer rating of 72.1 before coach John Harbaugh took over. At kickoff, Smith’s rating for the season was 95.7. He recorded a 109.7 for the game, eclipsing the century mark for the third time this year.
That’s the type of performance Redskins coach Mike Shanahan envisioned for Beck. But so far there’s no indication that Beck can be even a poor man’s Smith. And this year’s Smith is a lot better than previous models.
“I’m just playing better football,” Smith said after completing 17 of 24 passes for 200 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. “There’s no magic. Coaches are putting us in great situations and guys around me are playing football at a high level. I think they deserve the credit.”
Shanahan thought he could get away with Beck and/or Rex Grossman, largely because he thought the other elements would be in place. His renowned zone-blocking running game supposedly would churn out yardage like San Francisco. Niners halfback Frank Gore, the league’s fifth-leading rusher entering Sunday, rushed for 107 yards against Washington, his fifth consecutive game with at least 100 yards.
The Redskins rushed for less than half of Gore’s total, netting just 52 yards.
Shanahan has caught plenty of heat for gambling on these quarterbacks, and rightfully so. But he compounded that miscalculation by failing to build a stronger offensive line. Beck and/or Grossman were going to need a reliable ground attack to enjoy any success, and it hasn’t materialized
Shanahan either thought too highly of his scheme, overestimated the O-line talent, missed out on better alternatives or all of the above. The lack of a running game plays right into a defense’s hands, which are eager to swat or swipe the uninspiring passes that follow.
“Balance with the run and the pass game, using the run to set up the play-action — that’s what we go for when we head into a game,” said Beck, who completed 14 passes to halfback Roy Helu and a combined 16 to everyone else. “But I think some of it might be skewed because of the situation at the end of the game where you’re trying to come back and put points on the board fast. You have to throw the ball more and try to get it in chunks.”
Ask Smith how that used to work out for him. He threw for nearly 2,900 yards in 2006 … when the Niners finished 7-9. Unless you’re Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and the like, the ratio of wins often decreases as passing yards increase.
Case in point: Beck threw for 116 of his 254 yards in the fourth quarter.
That’s one reason Smith doesn’t mind the talk that he’s a caretaker and Harbaugh doesn’t trust him to throw much.
“When we were losing and behind in the third and fourth quarters, I threw for a lot of yards in years past,” Smith said. “When you’re ahead and up by multiple scores in the third and fourth quarters, you’re going to run the ball. People can say whatever they want about yardage, numbers and things like that, but we’re winning games.”
The Redskins’ defense has played well enough to win games and cover up for the shortcomings at quarterback. Ditto for the special teams, especially Sav Rocca, whose booming punts help overcome less-than-spectacular returns by Brandon Banks and fingers-crossed field goal attempts by Graham Gano.
Gano came through with a franchise-record 59-yard field goal. The defense, saddled with short fields on four of the Niners’ five scoring drives, yielded but one touchdown.
But the Redskins’ quarterbacks aren’t good enough to succeed with the stool that’s missing one of three legs - a running game. They might not be good enough, anyway, but we’ll never know at this rate.
At least the Niners have found out what Smith can do with proper support.
“Alex has been easy to coach,” Harbaugh said. “He’s just so smart, talented, and he’s very tough. He does everything you’d want a team guy to do in that position. I only judge him by one thing - like a pitcher in baseball - wins and losses. He’s the guy out there doing it.”
Much like Beck (and Grossman), Smith has been dissed throughout his career. But he’d look real good in burgundy and gold right now.
Especially if he brought the Niners running game with him.