It’s very easy to blame Kyle Williams for the 49ers NFC Championship defeat. Certainly, without his punt return mistakes, San Francisco had a legitimate chance to advance to Super Bowl 46.
It could be argued that the 49ers played their brand of football against the Giants. They ran the ball 28 times for 150 yards, including 2 runs by Alex Smith out of the read option. Smith threw 26 passes, completing 12 for 196 yards and 2 beautiful touchdowns to Vernon Davis. He did not throw an interception. That’s the kind of offensive balance and efficiency the 49ers have preached, and executed, all season.
No miscues by Williams deep in San Francisco territory, and 49ers football reigns. I imagine the faithful see it that way. For those who do, the discussion is over. Nothing more needs to be said or evaluated.
It’s never that simple. As always, a careful study of the coaching tape revealed much more. The NFC Championship should not have been as close as it was. I wrote last week that Smith was the difference against the Saints in the Divisional Playoff, a game in which he was outstanding, especially in critical moments. Unfortunately for the 49ers, against the Giants, Smith was also the difference.
Let’s start with the first 3rd down of the game. It was 3rd and 4; the 49ers had already gotten 1 first down. Michael Crabtree ran a sail route (kind of a flattened corner route). He was wide open. Smith, with no pressure in the pocket, did not pull the trigger. It was a throw that had to be made. The result of the play was an incompletion on a late check down to Frank Gore.
The first play of the 49ers fourth offensive possession was also telling. It was a shot play, a called big play off Smith boot action. Williams ran a deep post off a stutter move. The double move froze Corey Webster, and Williams raced by him. The design of the play worked. Smith overthrew Williams by 5 yards. A good throw, and it was a touchdown. An adequate throw, and it was still a 50 yard gain. This was another missed opportunity.
But the first play of the second half was perhaps the most indicative of Smith’s performance. You come out of halftime with a specific plan. The 49ers went to one of their staples, the wheel route. A shot play right out of the gate. Delanie Walker, from his line of scrimmage tight end position, ran by a slipping Webster. The concept worked to perfection. Walker screamed down the sideline. Smith again did not pull the trigger from a clean pocket. He ended up getting sacked for a 7 yard loss.
These are just a few examples of Smith’s tentative and uncertain pocket play last Sunday. The bottom line was this: Smith was reluctant to let it loose on routes and throws that were not only well designed, but were open. They were primary reads. No progressions were involved.
One of the attributes that separates high level quarterback play in big games and critical moments is the willingness to make stick throws into smaller windows. Smith did that with confidence against the Saints. In the NFC Championship game, he was hesitant and cautious on throws that were clearly defined. Simply put, Smith left a lot of plays on the field against the Giants. While Williams publicly shouldered the burden of defeat, it was his quarterback who failed to deliver on the promise he had shown a week earlier.