As you peruse the NFL playoffs, it’s worth considering how thin the margins are in the NFL, particularly between the 7-9 Seahawks and 13-3 49ers, NFC West champs who are given a respectable shot by many to make the Super Bowl.
Despite a passel of injuries, the Seahawks lost on Christmas Eve to the 49ers, 19-17. As it turns out, the 49ers did it with seven players who made the Associated Press All-Pro teams, compared to one, safety Earl Thomas, for Seattle.
The AP All-Pro team is a much more credible honor than the Pro Bowl, which has enough bad politics in the voting to lap a Republican primary. The AP team is picked by 50 media members around the country whose agendas are professional, as opposed doing favors, in picking the best players from the regular season.
What’s intriguing locally is that all but one of the 49ers’ selections were on defense and special teams. Not a surprise to those who watched them, but illuminating concerning the issue that hangs over the Seahawks: What to do about the quarterback position.
The Niners chosen were linebackers Patrick Willis (first team), NaVorro Bowman (first) cornerback Carlos Rogers (second) and defensive lineman Justin Smith (first team defensive end, second team defensive tackle), punter Andy Lee (first) and placekicker David Akers (first). The lone offensive player was tackle Joe Staley (second).
What the Niners under Jim Harbaugh did is what the Seahawks’ Pete Carroll is attempting to do: Put emphasis on defense and special teams while creating an offense that makes few mistakes and does not lose the game.
The plans of Harbaugh and Carroll are so similar, it’s no wonder they don’t like each other. Carroll would never give Harbaugh the satisfaction of saying so publicly, but no development gags Carroll more in 2011 than to be down 0-2 to Harbaugh in the NFC West after losing four of the past five to him when Harbaugh was at Stanford and Carroll at USC.
Personal politics aside, Harbaugh’s success validates Carroll’s vision regarding the quarterback position: Other matters being equal, if Harbaugh can win 13 games with Alex Smith, Carroll has a decent shot to do the same with Tarvaris Jackson.
Smith has a better pedigree, having been taken with the No. 1 pick in the 2005 draft out of Utah, while Jackson was a second-rounder (64th overall) from Alabama State. But Smith’s Niners history has been so soaked in travail that many believed Smith wasn’t wanted in San Francisco as much as Smith didn’t want to be there.
Sort of like Jackson in his first four seasons in Minnesota.
But this year, Smith had a 90.7 passer rating, ninth in the NFL. Jackson was 21st, at 79.2. The primary difference in their stats was interceptions: Smith had a league-low five, Jackson 13. But the pick count is as much a function of team as QB. An inexperienced line put Jackson, in his first year in Seattle, under huge pressure early in the season, and late in the season the Seahawks were losing receivers by the boxcar-load.
Sure, Jackson made plenty of unforced errors, but anyone who watched Smith in Seattle saw a handful of dubious judgments and erratic throws. Neither guy is close to being the best in the business, but they don’t have to be if the rest of the team is built to win.
Both coaches say repeatedly that ball security is the QB’s No. 1 responsibility, another reason these teams try to run the ball more than most. They don’t want Smith or Jackson to be forced to make higher-risk throws. If the defense and special teams are well above average, suddenly there’s a much bigger pool of players who can play QB and still be successful.
“Your quarterback like your point guard,” Carroll said in his final press briefing of the year. “He needs to deliver the ball to guys and let them catch and run. When it comes time, (the QB) can make the plays you need that separates you.
“By taking an approach where you don’t make him have to make all of the stuff happen, you balance out all the responsibility. It gives you a chance to play with a number of different-style guys” at QB.
It also takes the pressure off a team like Seattle with a medium- high draft pick to take a collegian who is less of a sure thing than Stanford’s Andrew Luck or Baylor’s Robert Griffin III. Neither will be around by the time Seattle picks 11th or 12th. Moving up to get them would require surrendering the equivalent of Brazil’s gross national product.
Now that the other two would-be premium QBs, Matt Barkley and Landry Jones, said they will stay in college, Seattle is better served by expending treasure on other needs such as linebacker or defensive end.
Jackson is signed for another year and demonstrated enough progress that, with a full training camp and a healthy O-line, he could be next year’s Alex Smith.
A year ago, that would have been an insult. Now it’s an opportunity to catch up to Harbaugh and the 49ers by filling the roster with other All-Pro players besides Earl Thomas.