For Niners, All Roads Lead to Alex Smith

Mar 22, 2012 at 2:10 PM


Once again, we'd gotten off to a dubious start.

During last year's draft, you might recall, Trent Baalke theatrically narrowed his board to the select few prospects who'd earned "gold stars"—who'd been able to meet his restrictive criteria. "Not just the physical traits," he emphasized, "but more importantly the intangibles. Were they football guys? Were they clean guys off the field? Were they going to be family men first?"

And so it was that Baalke opened this year's free-agent frenzy with two particularly notable signings. One was a wide receiver with a virtual mountain of off-field dirt. (Meanwhile, on the field, he plays only when he wants to play.) The other was a corner who denied having sex with a woman who, by all accounts, was unconscious—having such sex, he rightly said, would've been "some sick shit"—yet somehow he'd gotten the woman pregnant. (And somehow, despite having impregnated an unconscious woman, he isn't sitting in prison today.) For these and various other reasons, last year neither played in the league. Yet Baalke quickly snapped 'em up.

What, me worry? Not this year. In Trent I trust.

And things indeed took a turn for the better. We retained Carlos Rogers, who seemed virtually gone, and we signed Mario Manningham, an upgrade over Josh Morgan, whom the Redskins overpaid. True, Ted Ginn was vainly holding out hope that he'd find a team foolish enough to give him a job as a wide receiver; but presumably he'd soon be crawling back home.

Everything seemed to be going as planned. Except for one, peculiar thing.

Alex Smith was still unsigned.

Though I knew that Jim Harbaugh was a certifiable genius, I never dreamed what he'd make of Smith. After six years of cartoonish buffoonery, Smith, at last, emerged. Did he justify the "elite" label that Harbaugh bestowed? No; he didn't carry enough weight. But at least he became a legitimate starter, a good QB who's occasionally great. And that was even before those frantic last-moments against the Saints, in his first-ever playoff start. Occasional greatness has never been greater.

In light of his draft status, it's easy to think of Smith in zero-sum terms. He's either elite or he's simply a bust. But that's unrealistic, as well as unfair. Smith might never be truly great, but there's nothing wrong with steadily good; half the league's coaches would kill for that. And with a real off-season and better weapons? True greatness wouldn't be out of the question.

So, of course, we made him an offer.

Here's the thing, though. This is still a quarterback's league, and until you've got greatness, you hedge your bets. So Baalke's offer was short and cheap: three years, $24 million, a mere $8 million guaranteed. It was way beneath the market for passers in general—Ryan Fitzpatrick got six years and $59 million for virtually nothing—but Baalke knew that it matched the market for Smith himself. Smith's success was deemed leaguewide as a product only of Harbaugh's genius; without Harbaugh, no one would pay big money for Smith.

Yet Smith wanted a stronger commitment. He didn't sign.

And then all hell broke loose.

Make no mistake: Peyton Manning was fraught with risk. Never mind his advanced age; his stats had been steadily dropping for years, even before his creaky neck—now surgically treated on four occasions—cost him all of 2011. It was doubtful that he could still be great; after all, even when he was great, he was just perhaps a touch overrated. Though no one could question his robotic proficiency, he never seemed to exhibit that magic the label of greatness so often demands. That transcendent power to raise one's game when it matters most. We've seen it in Montana, Elway, and Favre. We've even seen it in Manning's brother. But in Manning himself? It just never appeared.

And despite all this, he expected to be paid like the best player alive.

Yet when the news broke that Harbaugh had secretly met with Manning—that we were perhaps the leading contender—the excitement was huge. With our defense and special teams, the addition of even a limited Manning would make us clearly the Super Bowl faves. But there was something else too. Despite Smith's emergence, the endless debate about his ceiling—still unknown, seven years in—was an anvil of doubt, a weight this team was struggling to bear. The Niners know that Smith is good, but they don't know whether he's good enough. Sure, he was good when the O had its training wheels on, and he was mostly good (and sometimes much more) on the rare occasions when those wheels came off. But would he succeed, for a full season, in a big-boy O? The Niners don't know, and for a team that's ready to win, now, that uncertainty is disconcerting.

That's why Baalke and Harbaugh—despite the latter's florid expressions of love and support—have never stopped looking for someone better, someone who could moot the debate. It's why, last year, they went after Hasselbeck. And it's why, this year, they went after Manning.

Hasselbeck chose Tennessee. Manning chose Denver. And the Niners, once more, had to settle for Smith, and the doubt they just can't seem to escape.

When Smith re-signed—Baalke had added a guaranteed million, just so Smith could save some face—he indicated no hard feelings. (And none, of course, were warranted; the Niners had no obligation to offer more than Smith's market rate, and they had every right to go after Manning, especially after Smith wouldn't sign.) But certainly he'd gotten the message. Though his emergence was astonishing, it wasn't enough. To earn a serious commitment, in years or dollars, he'll have to take it up a notch. And if he can't, the search for his replacement will start yet again. And this time, dammit, the search will succeed.

Put another way, the message was this. Welcome back, Alex. You deserve this chance, to expand your redemption. If you do—and we hope you do—we'll give you the commitment you seek.

But if you don't, you will be gone.

Welcome back, Alex. Now get to work.
The views within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


25 Comments

  • Lucky Phil
    LOL!! That was great. Thanks for laugh, Jeff. I needed it today.
    Apr 19, 2012 at 4:50 PM
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  • Lucky Phil
    Jeff, with all seriousness, what are you working on? I haven't read a good story on the webzone for more than a month. I am going through Niner withdrawal. I need a good Jeff Kaplan article. I need this comment board to vent my insanity. A nice Happy Meal isn't going to make it tonight. During the offseason .... What do you know about bowling?
    Apr 18, 2012 at 7:00 PM
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    Response: All I know about bowling is that I suck at it, hard. But try to be patient, Phil. I know the offseason is tough, but the draft is only a week away. I'm sure I'll have a reaction for you, and I'll be counting on you to respond with your unique brand of insanity. So chew on those chicken nuggets just a little longer. You'll make it.
  • Lucky Phil
    Ok, here are my picks! We trade down from the first, for a second and a third. We take Kelechi Ohbabyechemeli with the 2 and Greg Childs (3). We trade Crabtree for a late 2 and future 3 for David Wilson this year. We take Marvin Jones with our 2. Coryell Judie with the 3. Danny Coale (4). Jaye Howard (5). Big Jean-The Beast (NT). And Rosie O'Donnell (7). Judging by the fact that this article is over a month old, I'm sure I'll be the only one reading this comment. (As Usual!) Enjoy the draft, Jeff! I won't ask you for your picks this year, I remember your picks last year. Haha!
    Apr 18, 2012 at 1:46 PM
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    Response: And indeed, for that reason, I won't be making picks this year. As I said, in Trent I trust. But your plan sounds good to me. Maybe YOU'RE smarter than a general manager!
  • TIM
    From Kevin Lynch..."The 49ers extended their three-year $24 million weeks ago and no matter what other quarterbacks got, or where Smith went to get free-agent offers, the 49ers were not going to budge. The 49ers offer to Smith was crafted by research. The 49ers probably made dozens of calls to figure out if Smith had any free-agent value. They likely determined that Smith's value was minimal and that was reflected in their offer. Smith, according to CSN Bay Area, is now the 22nd highest paid quarterback starter." Smith's value was minimal! Yep, still is! ...and just the other day we learned that the owner of the Dolphins said that Alex wanted to sign with the Dolphins but that he (the owner) didn't think Alex was worth $8 million when he wasn't even sure he could beat out Moore for the starting spot...and then Roger Theder said that although he is an Alex fan he firmly believes that both Kaep and JJ are better than Alex. Poor Alex.
    Mar 27, 2012 at 4:21 PM
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  • Merl Daddy
    So I have to say this and I am definitely NOT hating. Alex had a good year for one reason and one reason only. He didn't take any chances and didn't throw picks. Couple that with the fact that we had one of the greatest defenses I have ever seen and BOOM...we win 13 games. He only threw 17 TDs...that's really not very good at all. I think he will play better this year and I think we will all see improvement. I also do not think Johnson was really brought in as competition the way you guys are leading on. Alex is the guy.
    Mar 25, 2012 at 10:51 PM
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  • Lucky Phil
    You Found It! Yes, that was the one I was talking about. After reading that story, I read a few more comments I wrote back then. I learned a few things about myself ...... #1 I damned near went crazy back in 2010. #2 I learned to lighten up. If we ever hire the next Mike Singleberry, I'm watching Tennis.
    Mar 24, 2012 at 9:50 PM
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  • Lucky Phil
    Thanks for mentioning The Great Dropping of Trou, I had a laugh remembering that one. The one I'm most proud of was the one I wrote under the name Anonymous Niner. Now that was a classic! Jeff, Do you ever miss the good ole days with Mike Singletary? He was good for a laugh, if you could overlook the overwhelming pain and suffering he brought down from the heavens.
    Mar 24, 2012 at 12:39 PM
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    Response: Aren't we talking about the same one? (See "Jed's Christmas Gift," 12/28/10.) But no, Phil, though YOU were certainly good for a laugh, the coach himself was certainly not. The only saving grace is that we know we'll never go through anything worse.
  • TTB
    So we spend 7 years developing Alex Smith. He finally turns into what we envisioned, and if not for our butter-fingered punt returner he would have had us in the Super Bowl, and now the fans are clamoring to replace him with a failed backup from Tampa Bay with a career QB rating of 57.7? This is a tough crowd.
    Mar 24, 2012 at 5:21 AM
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  • mississippininer
    Jeff, your greatest work thus far. Great use of chronological context that allowed us the readers to relive these events. You just might be a niner.
    Mar 24, 2012 at 5:04 AM
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    Response: :)
  • Lucky Phil
    Thanks Matt. If you liked this story you should have read my "Running with the Bulls" analogy. That was one of my favorites. Can't remember when I wrote it though. Must have been one of the comments I made during the Singletary "Road to Excellence" era. One of many!
    Mar 23, 2012 at 5:17 PM
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    Response: For the record, MY favorite Phil story was his insider's account of how the players reacted to The Great Dropping of Trou. But indeed, there have been many classics.
  • Telecat
    It's VERY obvious JJ was brought in to compete with Alex. I love all the goobers who sneer at his history to date, yet defend Alice after a few good plays in a few games over the season and playoffs. By mid-season at the latest, Josh Johnson will be the starting quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers. Alex has hit his ceiling. Johnson hasn't had a chance in a decent offense. Johnson will outplay Alex in the preseason but they'll try Alex since he has the higher cap number but Alex will lose a couple games on his own and JJ will be the man. All roads no longer lead to that loser Nolan drafted.
    Mar 23, 2012 at 10:48 AM
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  • Jose Rivera
    Too bad for Alex Smith, Harbaugh & the organization OBVIOUSLY have no confidence in him! I understand the courting of Peyton Manning, hey he's a Hall of Famer, but now the J. Johnson signing makes it even more obvious. I know competition breeds better play, but Alex Smith had that with CK7 and now Kaepernick has the pressure also. I really hope the QB situation doesn't become a distraction because the team will fall far from where they found themselves last season!
    Mar 23, 2012 at 7:40 AM
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  • louie
    It's all good. It feels great to finally have confidence in the 49er braintrust to take care of the business of winning. Of course Harbaugh would prefer a better QB, so would anyone who realizes that 3rd down efficiency and red zone performance fall mostly on the QB position. So, now that the 49ers still have a game manager at QB, they've got to bolster the pass protection (a guard to take Adam Snyder's place) and the running game (Frank Gore is a 49er hero, but it's time for a younger, less injury prone, every down running back). And as far as the wide receivers are concerned, I for one am not confident that Mario Manningham is better than Joshua Morgan, nor is Randy Moss any more of a sure thing than Braylon Edwards was. Baalke and Harbaugh have done a great job keeping the team together, but getting to the top this year will also take a great draft. Here's hoping.
    Mar 22, 2012 at 9:14 PM
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  • Matt
    Lucky Phil, that was so hilarious! What a great analogy!
    Mar 22, 2012 at 8:32 PM
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  • Shane
    Thanks for the quick response Jeff, couldn't wait with everything that's been going on. I've hopelessly given all my trust to baalke/harbaugh. I'm pretty much going with the theory if it's good enough for them i'm buying in! I have friends who are very nervous about Moss. I say they wouldn't have signed him if they didn't like what they saw. and frankly it can't be any worse than Edwards. I agree Manningham is an upgrade over Morgan (although he was a favorite and i had the opportunity to speak with him once for 10 minutes, nice guy), the whole D back, Ginn in the return game, and we haven't even drafted yet! it looks like williams is gonna have a hard time seeing the field if Moss plays well, and we still need a RG. also the signing of JJ, it's crazy. at the end of the day, i believe it's an upgraded roster but a tougher schedule and prolly a little less magic. I'll say 11-5, win the west, and SB run!
    Mar 22, 2012 at 8:09 PM
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    Response: Sign me up, Shane.
  • montv
    I have reservations about Moss also. I assume that Baalke and Harbaugh got a verbal commitment from Moss that he would be on his best behavior. Cox I am not that familiar with, but there is cause to question Baalke's judgment in signing him. The man was found innocent in a court of law, but the circumstances surrounding him don't seem to speak well for his character. I hope he has learned something from this, and I hope he is not a predator. But the circumstances certainly raise serious questions. Alex Smith has been nothing but a stand-up guy his entire career with the 49ers. I am glad he is back, and I look forward to seeing him improve even more this season. Is Manning, even at his best, worth $95 million? Hell no. The concern I haven't seen raised yet is that of the expectations on Manning had he signed with the 49ers. The team would have been expected to win the Super Bowl, and I wonder how much of wanting to avoid that pressure helped Manning choose to go to Denver instead. It had "Philadelphia Eagles Dream Team" written all over it.
    Mar 22, 2012 at 6:38 PM
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  • Ryan
    Jeff, I expect he'll get better. He got better with the passage of time, and he played very well in the playoffs. The numbers tell it. I'm predicting 32 TDs, comfortably. I actually believed this would be so BEFORE Moss/Manningham. Now I still expect a confident 30 TDs. #Niners
    Mar 22, 2012 at 5:04 PM
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    Response: For the record, Ryan, just so folks don't think I'm being "negative": I agree with you.
  • Lucky Phil
    You can slap him in the face, kick him in the ass, and throw him out the door. But Alex Smith is not leaving the building! This is the weirdest damn relationship between a QB and a football team I have ever seen. Just imagine this, I have been married to Mrs. Lucky Phil for seven wonderful years. Today I walk out of my house, walk across the street, walk into the bathroom of the old lady that lives across the street. I tell her "Get out of the bathtub, we are getting married. I don't care how old you are, how many neck surgeries you have had, and I don't care about that metal plate in your head". I get down on one knee, propose, and pull a 95k dollar diamond ring out of my pants. She tells me "Get the hell out of here, I'm calling the police and I'm moving to Denver to get the hell away from you". I walk out of the house, walk across the street, into my living room, and tell my wife "I'm through with that woman!" Mrs. Lucky Phil says "You mean the little old lady you have been trying to woo all week?" "That's right, we are done. You know how much I love you? And you know I think you're an elite wife?" I ask. "Of course", Mrs. Lucky Phil replies. "We are a match made in heaven".
    Mar 22, 2012 at 5:02 PM
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  • Matt
    I'm trying to figure out the purpose of this rambling article. Is it just to try to make everyone look as bad as possible, when there is actually nothing wrong with anything that anyone has said or done during this 49ers free agency period? You are also overlooking the fact that Baalke and Harbaugh have brought in players with questionable character before. (See Edwards, Braylon.)
    Mar 22, 2012 at 4:02 PM
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  • Bryan
    If you look at Alex's second year, he had a good season and was making strides, then came the fire. He was put through it and came out stronger. This nigga is CLUTCH!!! Alex Smith is coming on, and I hope he takes that next step for all those haters.
    Mar 22, 2012 at 3:09 PM
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  • Andrew
    That's exactly what I said when Smith re-signed, for me there has never been a question if Smith can be very good to elite, the reason he's not there is he lacks consistency, his entire career in SF he has made throws that make you say that's the kind of throws elite QBs make, but so many more times he makes throws that leave you scratching your head, and yes he still made too many of those throws last year. This is the year now that he has some legitimate weapons around him, that he has to make the step to consistently making good throws, if not he will be shown the door and the next QB will be given the reins to this team.
    Mar 22, 2012 at 3:07 PM
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  • Shaj
    nice article, written very well. Interesting observation regarding Baalke's duplicity on the topic of what kind of traits he looks for in players he signs.
    Mar 22, 2012 at 2:51 PM
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  • Edd
    A fair evaluation. He had a good year, but everybody is expecting much better. Everybody will be watching 3rd down conversions and red-zone offense this year, with little tolerance for checking down.
    Mar 22, 2012 at 2:46 PM
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  • ninerminer81
    Alex is a band-aid for SF until CK is ready to take the throne, that's why we signed him to a 3 year contract with less than 10 mil a year. Everyone was saying Alex would get 10-12 mil/year on a 5 year deal. Are you kidding me? Alex will not get us any further than he did last year. We don't need Alex to prove himself, we need to buy time for CK.
    Mar 22, 2012 at 2:34 PM
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  • DieHard
    That pretty much sums it up. I hope Alex steps up his game this year and becomes a legitimate pro-bowl quarterback. I'm looking forward to the upcoming season.
    Mar 22, 2012 at 2:18 PM
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