Alex Smith, 49ers’ Formula for Success Resembles 2001 Patriots’ Blueprint of Strong Defense, Run Game


Alex Smith, 49ers' Formula for Success Resembles 2001 Patriots' Blueprint of Strong Defense, Run GameTime blurs memories. It was just a decade ago, remember, when Patriots fans held their breaths on every dropback, wondering if this would be the play where their quarterback screwed everything up.

That's what it was like to be a football fan in New England during the 2001 season, when some guy named Tom Brady replaced franchise icon Drew Bledsoe and made every game the most gut-wrenching three hours of every fan's life. Close your eyes real tight and try to forget the 50-touchdown season and the three Super Bowls.

Instead, relive the 10-3 and 24-17 losses, the and 12-9 and 17-16 victories and the regular sub-200-yard passing performances. Nobody considered the Patriots a contender, not with some sixth-round pick calling the signals.

That's kind of how it must feel to be a San Francisco 49ers fan in 2011.

Some of the details are different, but some of the similarities are almost eerie. Unlike Brady, Alex Smith was a No. 1 draft pick, but six years of futility have made Niners fans just as nervous about him as New Englanders were about the second-year man out of Michigan. Like those Patriots, these Niners are grinding out wins with their run game and defense. Brady, like Smith, was belittled as a "game-manager."

For example:

  • Brady averaged a paltry 189.5 passing yards per game in 2001; the much-maligned Smith is averaging 189.9 pass yards per game this year.
  • The Patriots' offense averaged just over 305 yards per game in 2001; the Niners offense is at 310 yards per game.
  • After Brady took over in Week 2, the Pats held opponents to an average of 16.6 points per game; San Francisco's opponents are posting just over 15 points per game.
  • The Patriots rushed for 100 yards or more five times in their first eight games in 2001; the Niners rushed for 100 yards or more in five of their first eight games this season.

I'd keep going, but statistics are boring.

The greatest similarities, after all, aren't statistical. They're anecdotal.

Sean Salisbury and Merril Hoge all but laughed at the Patriots before the AFC Championship game against the Steelers, declaring they had no chance with an unproven quarterback in a hostile environment. The NFC Championship Game that year between the Eagles and Rams was considered by many to be the real Super Bowl.

Everybody waited for Bill Belichick's game plan to fail and for Brady to make the boneheaded mistake. They're doing the same this year with the 8-1 Niners, who made progress toward dispelling the notion that they're just a ball-control team by rushing for just 77 yards and passing for 242 in a 27-20 shootout victory over the Giants.

The thing was, Brady never did make that crushing mistake, and so far this season Smith hasn't, either. Both have grown up before our very eyes, though in very different ways — Brady at the beginning of his storied career, Smith toward the end of his disappointing one.

Ten years later, Brady belongs in rarified air among the game's best. Smith will never make that leap, but given San Francisco's defense and rushing game, his transition from game manager to game-changer may be enough.

We've seen it work before.

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