49ers review: Quarterbacks

49ers review: Quarterbacks
February 8, 2012, 7:41 pm
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This is the final installment of a nine-part series that reviews every 49ers player and position group.The 49ers' passing game was efficient, but it certainly was not prolific. There were 121 times during the NFL regular season in which a quarterback threw for 300 yards or more. The 49ers were not represented on that list. Alex Smith threw topped 250 yards passing only three times with a regular-season high of 291 yards in a Week 4 win at Philadelphia. The 49ers ranked 29th in the NFL in yards passing. But Smith was ninth in the league in passer rating, largely because he threw fewer interceptions than any of the 33 quarterbacks who qualified by attempting 14 passes per game. The 49ers did not perform well on third downs and in the red zone. Grade: B-
Alex Smith -- There were two things Smith did exceptionally well in 2011: He avoided turnovers and he played great when his team had its back against the wall. Only Aaron Rodgers had fewer turnovers at the quarterback position than Smith this season. Rodgers threw six interceptions and did not lose a fumble; Smith had five interceptions and lost two fumbles. Smith finished the regular season with 159 passing attempts without an interception. That ranks No. 2 all-time for the 49ers, behind Steve Young's 183 consecutive attempts without getting picked off in 1993. Smith attempted another 68 passes in the two playoff games without an interception, too. Smith helped rally the 49ers to six fourth-quarter comeback victories, including the playoff victory over the New Orleans Saints. That was Smith's finest game, as he threw for 299 yards and three touchdowns. He even rushed for a 28-yard score that gave the 49ers a brief lead late in the fourth quarter before the Saints took the lead again. Perhaps the biggest knock on Smith is that he is reluctant to throw the ball unless he sees a receiver wide open. That's part of the reason he was so good about avoiding interceptions. Ironically, he demonstrated he can do it on the most-important play of the season. Smith made up his mind to throw the ball well before his target broke into the clear with the 49ers down by three points in the closing seconds against the Saints. Tight end Vernon Davis was on the opposite side of Saints linebacker Scott Shanle when Smith started his throwing motion. As the ball was in the air, Davis cleared Shanle and the perfectly thrown pass arrived at Davis just a split-second before safety Roman Harper greeted Davis at the goal line. Smith came through for the game-winning 14-yard touchdown pass with :09 remaining. The next week, Smith made a couple nice passes on deep balls to Davis for touchdowns against the Giants. But he missed a potential big-gainer when he did not pull the trigger on a pass to tight end Delanie Walker on a wheel route along the left sideline early in the third quarter. For the most part, Smith did not make his receivers or offensive line better. He did not "throw open receivers" with regularity. And he often held the ball too long and took unnecessary sacks. Smith was sacked 44 times. He could've avoided a good number of those sacks. On Tuesday, Smith said on "Chronicle Live" that in the coming weeks he will analyze where he needs to get better and be honest with himself. That's where I see Smith can get better -- a lot better. Perhaps with a full offseason to fully comprehend the offense, Smith will have a greater understanding of the angles he can exploit against certain defenses to get rid of the ball quicker and allow his receivers to make more plays.RELATED: Alex Smith game logs
Colin Kaepernick -- When asked late in the season how Kaepernick was progressing, one team source said, "I think pretty well. But we won't really know until we see him in a game." Kaepernick completed 3 of 3 passes for 35 yards in mopup time of a Week 5 blowout of Tampa Bay. He misfired on both passes in the fourth quarter of a decisive December victory over St. Louis. But the 49ers still don't know, exactly, what they have in Kaepernick. The 49ers traded up to select him in the second round of last year's draft. Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke like his arm and athleticism. There's no denying that Kaepernick has a cannon for an arm. As one defensive player said it, however, he needs to adjust his arm action to provide better touch on short passes. He also probably needs to tighten up his throwing motion. Kaepernick is not satisfied to carry a clipboard as the backup, and that's a good thing. Harbaugh has said the quarterback position is not an anointed position. If there is a point in which Harbaugh believes Kaepernick gives the 49ers their best chance to win games, then a switch would be made. But Kaepernick has a long way to go. Smith has earned the trust of Harbaugh, and it'll be difficult for Kaepernick to compete with that. He must have a good offseason in the classroom to even put himself in that conversation.Scott Tolzien -- The 49ers opted to claim Tolzien off waivers from the San Diego Chargers to serve as the No. 3 quarterback, rather than devote that position to a veteran, such as Josh McCown, who was among the final cuts. The 49ers know that Tolzien is going to give them a full day of work. He was a diligent worker during his four months with the 49ers. He rarely took any snaps in the 49ers' offense during practices his rookie season, and he saw limited reps with the scout team. He'll get a full offseason to attempt to convince the 49ers that he is worth keeping around.