Cosell Talks: Stafford, Smith, Contending & Pretending

Detroit Lions, From the Desk of Greg Cosell, Greg Cosell, Inside the Game, San Francisco 49ers

The San Francisco 49ers. The Detroit Lions. Both playoff teams for the first time in years. Both with quarterbacks that were chosen number one in their respective NFL drafts. That’s where the similarity begins and ends.

No two teams better reflect the paramount importance of the quarterback position in the NFL, and how that player must shape your overall philosophy.

Let’s start with the 49ers, arguably the most consistent week-to-week team in the league. Alex Smith has had his best season, a winning combination of efficiency (highest completion percentage in his 6 year career), and minimal mistakes, as evidenced by a league-low 5 interceptions.

Alex Smith (AP)

Perhaps just as important, Smith has thrown the fewest passes of any quarterback who has started all 16 games. And the second fewest third down passes. That’s not an accident. Jim Harbaugh recognized immediately that Smith had limitations as a passer, and those limitations had to be managed and manipulated within the overall context of his team and its strengths.  Such an evaluation is the job of the head coach, and Harbaugh has made it brilliantly.

The 49ers have a consistent power run game led by Frank Gore, one of the toughest inside runners in the NFL. San Francisco has the league’s best defense.  It has no significant weakness to exploit, so not surprisingly, the 49ers allowed the fewest points in the NFC this year.

Defense and the run game. The tried-and-true formula to compete every week. And don’t forget special teams. That’s helped win a number of games for the 49ers, with record setting FG kicker David Akers and a return game among the league’s best.

Smith is clearly a more confident player than he has ever been, but he’s a complementary player. He’s not the foundation of the offense, and by extension, the team. His success is a function of the other parts working effectively.

On the other side is Stafford. He has thrown more passes than any quarterback in the league.  No quarterback has thrown more passes on third down. That tells you how Jim Schwartz and the offensive staff feel about Stafford. He’s the focal point by choice, the player around whom the success of the Lions revolves.

Stafford is an elite arm talent, capable of making any throw at any time. He has outstanding arm strength, plus the willingness to make tight passes into small windows. He can make those tough third down throws in critical situations against blitz and complex coverage schemes.

The concern with Stafford has been his accuracy, and at times questionable decision-making. He can be erratic and scattershot, and throughout the season, that has led to missed opportunities and turnovers. Certainly, Stafford’s inconsistency has been responsible for some poor offensive performances.

When Stafford is at his best, as he was in the fourth quarter against the Raiders three weeks ago and in the playoff clinching win against San Diego, you see a true lead quarterback who is his team’s centerpiece.  As 11 year veteran center Dominic Raiola said after the Chargers win, “You need a great quarterback to win in this league and we got one. He’s the real deal”.

As we head to the playoffs, the Lions will be viewed as dangerous, for one reason: Matthew Stafford. No one will look at Alex Smith and the 49ers the same way. Yet San Francisco is the more complete team. Recently, conventional wisdom has held that true Super Bowl contenders must be driven by the play of the quarterback. Does that make the 49ers pretenders? Jim Harbaugh would say no.  I would disagree.

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