NFC West quarterbacks took a beating in 2011 -- not just with the 203 sacks they absorbed, either.
We've heard the criticisms and levied them from time to time. Alex Smith is a merely game manager, John Skelton lacks accuracy, Kevin Kolb lacks pocket awareness, Tarvaris Jackson doesn't produce well enough in the clutch, etc.
The position was more asset than liability within the division Sunday. Smith, Skelton and the St. Louis Rams' Kellen Clemens made key plays and generally avoided critical errors. Smith and Clemens even scrambled for touchdowns. They stood high above the Seattle Seahawks' Tarvaris Jackson in Total QBR for Week 17.
Skelton's performance in victory over Seattle gave him the highest single-game QBR for a Cardinals quarterback (69.7) since Kurt Warner scored a 75.1 against the Rams in Week 16 of the 2009 season. That was enough to move Skelton past Jackson for second behind Smith in QBR for the 2011 season.
What does it all mean?
QBR measures how quarterbacks affect their teams' win probability on a play-by-play basis, taking into account contributions related to passing, rushing, sacks, penalties and fumbles. It would have us believe that NFC West quarterbacks played well occasionally, but their contributions over the full season fell short of the 50-point score representing average. I would generally agree.
The first chart below suggests Smith has picked up his play recently, posting scores in the 70s for three weeks running, and 67.7 or higher six times in the last eight games. Smith's NFL passer rating (90.7) ranked ninth in the NFL. His QBR ranked 22nd largely because the 49ers added relatively few expected points through passing, and because Smith ranked last in expected point lost to sacks.
Smith has taken five sacks over his last three games after taking 18 over the previous three. The 49ers have not committed a turnover in their last five games.
The key for Smith, in my view, will be transitioning away from turnover avoidance through sacks (avoiding interceptions at all costs) and moving toward completing passes against pressure. We have seen that on occasion recently.
I've shaded the chart to show single-game scores in the 60s or higher. For reference, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees scored in the 80s over the full 2011 season. Any full-season score in the mid-60s represents Pro Bowl-caliber production.
2011 NFC West Total QBR by Week (50 is average, 100-point max)
Quick thoughts on how NFC West passers graded out in Week 17 according to Total QBR, with NFL passer ratings in parenthesis as a reference point:
Alex Smith, San Francisco 49ers (73.3 QBR, 98.7 NFL rating): Smith completed 21 of 31 passes for 219 yards with one touchdown, no interceptions, three sacks no fumbles. He gained five yards on four carries and had a rushing touchdown. The 49ers had only three wide receivers active, putting pressure on Smith to better utilize tight end Vernon Davis and receiver Michael Crabtree. Smith succeeded. He found Davis on deep passes gaining 44 and 34 yards. Crabtree did much of the work on a 28-yard scoring pass, but Smith's rushing score on third-and-goal from the 8 helped.
John Skelton, Arizona Cardinals (69.7 QBR, 74.1 NFL rating): Skelton completed 22 of 40 passes for 271 yards with one touchdown, one interception, two sacks and no fumbles. He ran five times for 19 yards. Skelton completed third-down passes covering 26, 26, 22 and 18 yards. He also picked up a critical first down on a fourth-and-2 play in overtime. The touchdown drive Skelton led in the first quarter featured a 22-yard completion to Todd Heap on third-and-5.
Kellen Clemens, St. Louis Rams (64.9 QBR, 67.4 NFL rating): Clemens completed 14 of 31 passes for 226 yards with one touchdown, one interception, three sacks and no fumbles. He ran twice for 18 yards and a touchdown. The 49ers had allowed only one rushing touchdown all season when Clemens sprinted into the end zone for an 18-yard touchdown in the first quarter. Clemens' 36-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Lloyd on third-and-11 gave the Rams a chance late in the game. He also completed a 21-yard pass on third-and-10 a bit later.
Tarvaris Jackson, Seattle Seahawks (26.7 QBR, 76.1 NFL rating): Jackson completed 21 of 35 passes for 222 yards with one touchdown, one interception, four sacks and one fumble, which the Seahawks recovered. He gained three yards on his only rush. Jackson twice missed an open Ben Obomanu for deep passes that likely would have produced touchdowns. He did connect with Ricardo Lockette for a 61-yard score, but the Seahawks converted just three times on 19 third-down chances. Jackson could not claim his first fourth-quarter comeback victory of the season despite rallying into a tie.
The clutch-weight average column reflects game situations, not how well players performed during those situations. Any clutch average above 1.0 reflects a quarterback performing in higher-pressure situations.