Quarterbacks Alex Smith and Cam Newton, who feuded last month (kind of) are next to one another on a list of the top NFL quarterbacks compiled by ESPN's Ron Jaworski and NFL Films' Greg Cosell. Smith is ranked 16th; Newton is one spot better at No. 15.
Smith cited Newton last month in explaining why the 49ers' meager passing statistics in 2011 were unimportant in the grand scheme. "I could absolutely care less on yards per game," Smith said. "I think that is a totally overblown stat because if you're losing games in the second half -- guess what? -- you're like the Carolina Panthers and you're going no-huddle the entire second half. Yeah, Cam Newton threw for a lot of 300-yard games. That's great. You're not winning, though."
In lauding Smith on Monday, Jaworski on ESPN's SportsCenter noted his care of the ball. "Two statistics speak to Smith's play in 2011," Jaworski said. "He threw the fewest passes of any 16-game starter, and he had the lowest interception percentage in the National Football League. Smith was managed brilliantly by first-year head coach Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh perfectly understood his quarterback's strengths and limitations."
Jaworski also noted that the majority of the 49ers' big pass plays last season came on first down when San Francisco was in its base personnel package. The 49ers, of course, usually run out of the package, which prompts defenses to move one of their safeties closer to the line of scrimmage. With one safety deep, it was easier - and safer - to take shots downfield.
But that conservative approach isn't necessarily Harbaugh playing to Smith's "strengths and limitations," as Jaworski suggested. Harbaugh did virtually the same thing at Stanford with Andrew Luck, whom the NFL deemed the top quarterback in the draft this year. That is, the approach is more Harbaugh-related than it is Smith-related.
Only one team - the Tim Tebow-led Broncos - threw the ball less than San Francisco in 2011. Only two teams - the Broncos and Texans - ran the ball more. That run-pass ratio may change slightly in 2012 with the addition of high-profile wideouts Randy Moss, Mario Manningham and A.J. Jenkins. But with Harbaugh, a lover of power-based offenses at the helm, it's very unlikely to change dramatically.
Back to Jaworski's list. He has yet to reveal slots 1-14, but they likely will be filled by Jay Cutler, Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Matt Schaub, Tony Romo, Phillip Rivers, Michael Vick, Matthew Stafford, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers -- not necessarily in that order.
I tend to agree with where Smith is ranked. But it's worth noting that whenever the 49ers needed Smith to be great in 2011, he stepped up. He engineered come-from-behind wins in Philadelphia and in Detroit and against the Saints in the playoffs. He also out-dueled five of the quarterbacks ranked ahead of him - Vick, Stafford, Eli Manning (in the regular season), Roethlisberger and Brees. He'll face Rodgers, Cutler and Brady this season.
To the unemployed and anyone with a tv in their office: I'm scheduled to talk about Smith today on ESPN's NFL Live at 12:15 p.m. (PST)
-- Matt Barrows