Hey, man, it was great to see you.
There you were, the latest ex-Niner to QB the Chiefs. No, you weren't Joe Montana—though Colin Kaepernick wasn't Steve Young either—but there was still some serious history here. And as soon as you started driving the field, dinking and dunking as only you can, it all seemed to come flooding back....
It all started with Gil Brandt, remember? "I've been coming to private workouts for decades," he said, "but this is the first time I can remember a player receiving a standing ovation from the audience. He was lights out." Brandt saw you "make all the throws—three-step drops, five-step drops, play-action passes, deep passes .... In fact, Smith threw 62 yards to a receiver standing on the goal line, and the pass was perfect."
"They don't call this 'Money Week' for nothing," Brandt concluded, "and I'm sure that Smith feels like he helped himself get into position to be the first quarterback taken, and possibly the first player taken, in April's draft."
The Niners, of course, had the first pick in that draft, and they desperately needed a quarterback. It came down to you and Aaron Rodgers, and when you aced a more rigorous workout administered by Mike McCarthy, our offensive coordinator, the Niners said the decision was easy.
The decision was you. And as Rodgers dropped to pick 24, no one seemed to quarrel with it.
You know the rest. After spending three years learning from Brett Favre, Rodgers—under McCarthy, of all people—was a Pro Bowler in '09, a Super Bowl MVP in '10, and an all-time great from that point on. You, meanwhile, were thrown to the wolves. You had one of the worst rookie seasons ever, and after a hopeful uptick in '06, you tore three ligaments in your throwing shoulder, only to have your coach question your toughness. You missed all of '08, and then, over the next four years, you lost the starting job three times: to Shaun Hill and Troy Smith—the chants for David Carr don't count—and finally, of course, to Kaepernick.
And the debate about you never stopped. When you were losing, were you a bust, or were you suffocated by bad coaching? When you were winning, were you winning, or were you hidden by good coaching? And, in the end, did Jim Harbaugh make the right choice?
That last question, in particular, has never really gone away. When the choice was made, plenty of people disagreed. They quieted down as Kaepernick immediately exceeded your timid "game management" and exploded all the way to the Super Bowl. But because he hasn't been quite the same since, the question has slowly crept back into play.
And last week, a national writer boldly proclaimed that Harbaugh was wrong. "Smith isn't the guy he was with the 49ers," he said. "He has grown into more than just efficient. He's become dangerous, a quarterback who can make every throw on the field. Game-manager? Game-destroyer."
Alex Smith, game-destroyer? Whoa.
I hadn't seen much of you with the Chiefs. I knew that you'd had the game of your life against the Colts in the playoffs, and I knew that you'd pretty much "destroyed" the Patriots. I doubted the writer's bold declaration; heaven knows, I'd made that same declaration myself, on several non-consecutive occasions, only to have you prove me wrong. But I'll admit that I was concerned. A grudge can be a powerful thing. You know how much Montana wanted to make us pay for choosing Young, and that was after we'd made him a legend. I could only imagine the grudge you'd have, after the way we'd treated you.
And I'll also admit that your first drive scared me. You certainly didn't look more "dangerous," as you dinked and dunked in your usual way. But maybe you carried a touch more swagger, like maybe something indeed had changed. As a Niner, you seemed to know that your dinking and dunking were just killing time until the inevitable field-goal or punt; on Sunday, though, you seemed to possess a different belief: you could dink and dunk all the way to the end zone. And when you did exactly that—leading a 12-play, 81-yard drive on which you were 6-of-8 for 61 yards and the score—I couldn't help but think, Uh-oh.
But even our depleted D is a bit too good to be dinked and dunked for very long. We sort of fell asleep on your opening drive of the second half, losing contain on a long run and two more of your shorties. But otherwise, we did what so many of our opponents had done when you were dinking and dunking for us: we clamped down on the underneath stuff and dared you to beat us over the top. And the results looked much like they always did. As PFF noted, as if in answer to that national writer: "If Smith was looking for a game to break free from the 'game manager' label, ... this was not one of them. Only three of his 17 completions went beyond 10 yards." And when you still had a chance to win at the end—more on that in a minute—you threw your deepest pass of the day, and the chance was gone, immediately.
Suffice it to say, you were pretty much the guy you were for the 49ers.
But you did have that chance, because it's not like Kaepernick set the world on fire. Indeed, in some respects he's been forced to follow in your star-crossed footsteps. Much as your old coaches saw you flourish in a spread offense, only to make you do something else, Kaepernick is stuck in the same muck. Predictably, after Harbaugh observed that we'd shown "some real positives out of that set," he promptly put that set on ice. Instead we've gone with the same grinding run-heavy style, which trades touchdowns for field-goals and turns blowouts into nail-biters. Apparently having committed to that identity, we've achieved a semblance of offensive rhythm. (Oh, so that's the play-clock.) And Kaepernick is making the best of it, throwing (and completing) deep passes when he can. (Welcome back, Brandon Lloyd.) But after being consistently in the top 10 in deep-throw percentage over his first two years, his rank has plunged to 23rd. As our weaponry has gotten better, our explosiveness has only dropped. We've paid for that, and we'll pay again.
But you didn't make us pay on Sunday. Instead you provided the perfect coda, allowing us to finally move on from your Niners career, and validating Harbaugh's decision to end it.
So thanks, Alex. Really, man, it was great to see you.