Earlier this year, I introduced the Trent Dilfer Club - those quarterbacks for good teams who don't typically win games for their teams, but can often lose them.
The Club members typically win by limiting their self-destruction and managing the game. This year, nobody followed this concept better than Alex Smith. Among QBs who played at least 9 games, Smith led the league with only 5 interceptions all year (and he played all 16 games!). He added a measly +0.01 WPA per game, but the 49ers entered the playoffs as the number two seed in the NFC with a 13-3 record.
Enter the divisional round. The 49ers are 3.5 point underdogs at home to the hottest team in football, the New Orleans Saints. The only possible way for the Niners to win would be a dominant defensive performance, right? Wrong. Alex Smith made throw after throw - mostly to his favorite target Vernon Davis - keeping the 49ers in one of the most exciting and high-scoring fourth quarters in playoff history. If I told you the Saints would score 32 points, no one would believe San Fran to come out on top. Check out Alex Smith's WPA and EPA/P throughout the course of the season:
Smith did it both with his arm and his legs, putting up the game of his career. He posted a ridiculous WPA of +0.98, shattering his Dilfer-esque image. Dilfer's best game in that 2000 Super Bowl year was +0.33 WPA in a 24-23 regular season win over Tennessee. In fact, coming into this game, Dilfer and Smith's WPA numbers looked eerily similar.
Dilfer averaged -0.07 WPA per game vs Smith's aforementioned +0.01. Their consistency was close too; a difference in standard deviation for WPA of just 0.035. Yet, there is no doubt that Alex Smith did more than just manage Saturday's win over the Saints. He was one of the primary factors in the win and finds himself as one of the four remaining quarterbacks in the 2011 playoffs. My hat is off to the guy who has had seven different offensive coordinators in seven years. The question remains, however, whether Smith will be able to bring home the same Lombardi hardware as Dilfer.
And as an update on the original members of the Trent Dilfer Club, three of the four made the playoffs, but Smith is the only one left standing after the Patriots dismantling of Tim Tebow. Long live Dilfer.
Keith Goldner is the creator of Drive-By Football, and Chief Analyst at numberFire.com - The leading fantasy sports analytics platform. Follow him on twitter @drivebyfootball or check out numberFire on Facebook.