Super Bowl Winning Quarterbacks

In the car last night, listening to Sedano and Stink on ESPN radio. During a conversation about Super Bowl contenders, Jorge Sedano asserted that the Chiefs could not win it all with Alex Smith, because Smith is not good enough to lead them to a title.

I never understand this kind of thinking. Smith was selected No. 1 overall in the 2005 draft by the Forty Niners (the Aaron Rodgers draft). He was famously a bust for six seasons. Then in season seven, Jim Harbaugh became the head coach and put Smith in a position to be successful, playing largely error free football in a ball control offense. The 49ers went 13-3, Smith was in the top ten in passer rating, and his team advanced to the NFC championship game. To get there, they beat a high powered Saints team in a 36-32 thriller that featured a great 28-yard TD run by Smith and then a game winning 85 yard drive in the final seconds, capped off by a Smith touchdown throw to Vernon Davis.

The 49ers lost at home the following week to the Giants, largely on the strength of two muffed punt, allowing the Giants to escape with a 20-17 overtime win in San Francisco and a berth in the Super Bowl.

So, here’s my question: what about that run suggests that Alex Smith is incapable of winning a Super Bowl? Is he the best QB in the NFL? No. But contrary to popular lore and a lot of circular reasoning, you don’t need to be a great QB to win a Super Bowl. Just ask Eli Manning. Manning, a generally very interception-prone quarterback, managed during the Giants’ 2007 and 2011 Super Bowl runs to minimize those mistakes, throwing just one interception total in each of those four-game stretches. That is exactly the formula that another mediocre Super Bowl winning QB Trent Dilfer, parlayed into a championship, with the 2000 Ravens.

Sedano compared Smith to a mobile Chad Pennington, because of his weak arm strength. But Smith reminds me of another QB, Jeff Hostetler. Hostetler was a back-up for seven years with the Giants before he got his shot in 1990 due to a season-ending Phil Simms injury. Hostetler did not have a particularly strong arm, but was mobile and generally kept his mistakes to a minimum, avoiding throwing a single pick during the Giants’ championship march that season.

In fact, though it sounds easy, avoiding interceptions appears to be critical to victory in the postseason. Not the only key. But critical. This isn’t a strategy, by the way. If you hand the ball off on every play, you won’t throw any picks. But you’re not going to win many football games. It’s not that quarterbacks are unaware of the importance of avoiding interceptions. Some are just generally better at it than others. And sometimes, believe it or not, players can get on a nice little roll and play better than they typically do for a few games (see Joe Flacco, 2012), even during the postseason.

None of this means that Smith will win the title this year. And yes, I am aware that the NFL is a “passing league” nowadays, since commentators helpfully remind us of that fact roughly six thousand times a day. But you can’t tell me that it’s actually not possible for a QB who, just two seasons ago came within a botched punt of a Super Bowl, typically avoids interceptions and has a great defense, to win a Super Bowl.

That just makes no sense.




  1. I was thinking about this the other day, How far can Alex Smith take the Chiefs? I think a lot of their success has to do with their amazing defense, but his (and the team’s) ability to control the ball allows them to control the game. How far will that take them? Well, no one knows. I tend to think that it can only take you so far, but in a lot of ways, the Chiefs are similar to last year’s Ravens – defense, running, and smart passing plays. I think the flaw that people are pointing out is that if the Chiefs get into a large hole, Alex Smith might not be the type of QB to get them back in the game with Hall-of-Famer plays, but the thing is their defense is so good and they’re so good at ball-control, they rarely get into a hole to begin with. So does it really matter that he doesn’t have a strong arm?

  2. Sydney,

    I agree – I think Smith probably leaves the Chiefs with a smaller margin for error, though he was damn good in that Saints game two years ago when his team needed to keep scoring. The Chiefs may not win the Super Bowl. But I don’t think Smith is somehow below the threshold of QBs who *could* win the big win.

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