Alex Smith in Hindsight

Al Sacco
Feb 27, 2013 at 11:36 AM8

I knew this day was coming eventually. I thought it was going to happen after the 2008 season. I was SURE it was going to happen after the 2010 season. Both times I couldn't wait for it happen. Now it's happened (or happening) and I couldn't feel more conflicted. According to reports, the San Francisco 49ers have agreed to terms on a trade that will send quarterback Alex Smith to the Kansas City Chiefs for a 2nd round pick in 2013 and a similar pick in 2014. This is a great trade for the 49ers but this isn't what this about. This is about my don't like, loath, like, and dammit I couldn't respect you more relationship with Alex Smith.

In case you didn't know, Alex Smith was selected with the first overall pick in the 2005 NFL draft. The 49ers were a once great franchise looking to rebuild by selecting its next legendary signal caller. Hall of Famers Joe Montana and Steve Young gave way to pro bowler Jeff Garcia. After a year of Ken Dorsey and Tim Rattay it was time to find the next great 49ers quarterback. It didn't work out that way. The 49ers then coach, Mike Nolan, wanted to build his team with a good defense, an old fashioned running game and a quarterback who could steer the ship. So what did he do? He drafted a 20 year old quarterback from a spread offense to reshape his franchise. Square peg, meet round hole. They should have just tried to get a Chad Pennington. Although there was also another pretty good quarterback option in that draft class who grew up a 49er fan. Some guy named Aaron Rodgers.

Alex Smith came into the league on one of the worst offensive rosters in recent memory. His horrific rookie season saw him throw 1 touchdown pass (in the last game of the season) against 11 interceptions. He was throwing to the likes of Johnnie Morton, Brandon Lloyd and Arnaz Battle behind a sieve of an offensive line. Not that it mattered, he was completely overwhelmed. What sticks out to me most about that season was the timing in which they decided to give Smith his first start. Against a loaded, undefeated Colts team that went 14-2, Alex threw for 74 yards with 4 picks highlighted by a long bomb that looked like he essentially closed his eyes and threw it as far as he could. It was intercepted. My god, did Mike Nolan ever want him to succeed?

But things were looking up for Alex and 49ers in 2006 and I was optimistic. They had Frank Gore ready to be a full time back, drafted Vernon Davis and brought in Antonio Bryant at wide out. They had a new offensive coordinator (this will become a theme) in Norv Turner after Mike McCarthy somehow managed to parlay the 2005 49ers offense into a head coaching job. McCarthy's done pretty well since which shows you how bad the 2005 49er offensive personnel was. The team went 7-9 and Alex showed he might be a good quarterback after all. He threw for 3 touchdowns against the Raiders and pulled off a bootleg for the ages against the Seahwaks on a Thursday night. The 49ers finished the year with a win at Denver. This could have been the start of something. The pieces looked to be in place.

In 2006, the San Diego Chargers went 14-2. This was followed by another quick playoff exit for a coach who had too many of them. Marty Schottenheimer was then fired by the team. That didn't matter to me. It's not like they were going to hire Norv Turner who had already had 2 subpar stints as a head coach with Washington and Oakland. Nothing was going to derail the 49ers coming back to prominence. In 2007, the San Diego Chargers hired Norv Turner has their new head coach. Alex Smith and 49ers were looking for a new offensive coordinator again. Nolan promoted Jeff Hostler to offensive coordinator for the 2007 season. It was around now that I started thinking maybe Mike Nolan doesn't really quite know what he's doing. The season started out ugly but okay. Alex engineered a last second win against the Cardinals to open the season and played well enough to beat the Rams. The team was 2-0…they would pick it up offensively right? Following a loss to the Steelers, the 49ers hosted Seattle. It was here that Rocky Bernard sacked Alex, essentially taking away the next two years of his career. He tried to come back in 2007 but it was evident to everyone, except apparently Mike Nolan, that Smith was still badly hurt. Nolan called Smith out for being soft. Reports said he could barely lift his arm. The 49ers finished 5-11. This injury would also lead to Alex missing all of 2008 which saw the 49ers bring in another offensive coordinator in Mike Martz and fire Mike Nolan mid-season. The team finished strong though and there was some hope with new coach Mike Singletary.

Other than his contract, I didn't see any reason for the 49ers to keep Alex Smith around. Still, he went into the preseason in a quarterback competition with Shawn Hill. Alex was horrible in the preseason. Whether his confidence was shot or he was having trouble learning yet another offense (Martz was fired and replaced with the unimaginative Jimmy Raye) Shawn Hill had clearly won the battle. Alex Smith's days with the 49ers were numbered. The team started off well behind Hill going 3-1 with their only loss being a last second heart breaker to Brett Farve and the Vikings. But then the wheels came off. They got beat badly by Atlanta at home highlighted by Singletary yelling at the entire team during a timeout on the field. Players were kind of looking into the stands as he screamed. It was around now that I started thinking maybe Mike Singletary doesn't really quite know what he's doing. The next week they went to Houston and got blown out in the first half. Shawn Hill's limitations were starting to show. So Singletary made a play. He went back to Alex Smith. Eye's rolled…Seriously? Seriously. Alex came in and ignited the team throwing for 206 yards 3 touchdowns in the second half. He seemed to have a rapport with star tight end Vernon Davis. Smith would start for the rest of the season and while the team finished 7-9, he looked very good at times. He threw for a career high 18 touchdowns and the team went 5-5 in his starts. I still wasn't crazy about Alex Smith but maybe we were onto something here.

In 2010, people were excited. Everyone ignored the fact that the team's head coach was crazy and knew nothing about x's and o's. The 49ers were a preseason sleeper pick to win the west. Then the season started. The 49ers began 0-5 and changed offensive coordinators yet again. Mike Johnson, who is now out of football, took over. Alex Smith played like a quarterback trying to hard not to make mistakes so in turn he was making major ones. On a Sunday night against Philadelphia, it all came to a head. It will forever be known as the "We Want Carr" game. The fans chanted for Alex Smith's head after he ran backwords to avoid a sack and fumbled the ball away for a touchdown. Mike Singletary yelled at him like a little kid in view of everyone in the stadium. The 49ers were a joke. Shortly thereafter, the team went with Troy Smith who managed to fool some people into thinking he could play for about a month. After the second to last game of the season, Jed York came to his senses and fired Singletary. Interim coach Jeff Tomsula tagged Smith to start the last game of the season. Alex threw for 276 yards and 2 scores in a route of the Cardinals. His contract was up and after the game he was asked if he could ever see himself back with the 49ers. Smith couldn't help but laugh.

In my opinion, Jim Harbaugh may be the best coach in the NFL. When he was introduced as the new 49ers head coach before the 2011 season he said he liked Alex Smith. I thought he could give Alex a call and tell him that because there is no way he will be playing for the 49ers in 2011. People will burn down Candlestick! But Harbaugh brought him back. There were no expectations. "Experts" said the 49ers would finish in last place and Harbaugh's biggest mistake would be hitching his wagon to Smith. But Harbaugh and Smith proved everyone wrong. Alex played smart and mistake free football in 2011. He threw 17 touchdowns to only 5 picks and led the team to a 13-3 record. But could he win in the playoffs? In the 2011 divisional game Smith led the 49ers back twice against the Saints, culminating with a touchdown throw to Vernon Davis that still gives 49er fans chills to this day. If not for a couple muffed punts and a fumble by Ahmad Bradshaw that wasn't called, he would have led the team to the Super Bowl. He was cast off, humiliated, and thrown under the bus by coaches and fans. Despite it all, he rose from the ashes to become a clutch, consistent NFL starter.

By the start of the 2012 season I had come to respect Alex Smith more than any other 49er. I couldn't help but pull for him. He started the season on fire out playing Aaron Rodgers and Matt Stafford. After a hiccup against the Vikings, the 49ers went back to dominating beating up on the Jets and Bills. In the Bills game, Alex Smith hurt a finger on his throwing hand. The 49ers had a big game coming up against the team that beat them in the 2011 NFC championship, the Giants. Smith could not have played worse. His turnovers put the 49ers in a hole they could not get out of. The next week he played poorly against Seattle on a Thursday night, almost throwing the game away on a pick in the endzone. Doubts started to creep back in. Was his finger hurt? Did he hit his ceiling? Smith responded with what might have been his best pro game. On the Monday night stage, he completed 18 of 19 throws for 3 touchdowns against the Cardinals. That was his last full game before getting a concussion against the Rams that led way to the future. The team was now Colin Kaepernick's.

Obviously, the move to Kaepernick was the right one. Colin is a superstar in the making and will keep the 49ers in the running for a long time. But the move almost felt dirty for a while. I was thrilled the team was winning and knew Harbaugh did what he had to but Smith had earned so much more than that. He earned our respect. I know there are Smith supporters and Smith haters out there in Niner Nation but I can't imagine anyone can say they don't respect him for the way he has handled himself during his career. The path he has taken to NFL respectability is like nothing we have ever seen before. I wish him luck in Kansas City and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't going to be rooting for the Chiefs next year. It's been real Alex, and lately it's been fun. It just wasn't always really fun. Hope they appreciate the check down in Arrowhead. Best of luck.

Al Sacco
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


  • onemoretime
    I liked giving him his chances to be a clutch player he did show signs but on an inconsistant basis. Hope he finds that consistancy under pressure. He became very frustrating to watch hope he continues to improve.
    Mar 3, 2013 at 5:11 PM
  • john
    i respect the man, he showed what alot of nfl players dont, backbone. he was drafted to one of the worst teams in the league and paid the price. as the saying goes, its all about timing. Alex Smith's career was sometimes painful to watch. I myself never saw him quit on the field and there is something to be said for that. good luck Alex Go Niners!
    Mar 3, 2013 at 6:02 AM
  • russsalmon
    I agree with all the comments that Alex Smith is a class act and a role model intodays world. What I don't agree with is that the niners did anything wrong/unfair/immoral by benching him and trading him. To my knowledge he was paid over 50 million for his time in S.F. True niner fans should be giddy over the emergence of CK.
    Mar 1, 2013 at 7:53 AM
    Response: Considering Colin Kaepernick is almost a super hero talent wise and almost won the superbowl, I agree, the team made the right move. Especially since the defense went in the tank...I don't believe Alex could have put up the points Kaep did. And yeah, its hard to feel to sorry for someone who had made 50 mill to play football.
  • Ninerman4949
    I've wanted to documented Alex Smith's San Fran tenure in one tidy summary for a while now to show people exactly how he was so mishandled. Harbaugh's faith finally gave us loyal be11evers a final chance to prove that the guy always had top-pick talent. Any Alex news always brings the haters out, but bad players don't stick around with one team for eight years in the NFL today -- this is a great example of not just a great football story, but a human triumph. This will be a go-to reference whenever I need inspiration.
    Mar 1, 2013 at 1:03 AM
    Response: Thanks! I'm glad I can help inspire! It is a great story regardless of what people think of his quarterbacking ability. He was terribly mishandled early in his career and that would have ruined most players. You have to remember "the system" a QB is in has a lot to do with how they perform (i.e. does the system fit the QB's strengths). Harbaugh understands that. Nolan and Singletary did not.
  • Bret
    I only wish that there were more Alex Smith's in the pro sports world! Here is a man that we as niners fans had the privilege of watching him mature right in front of us. All I have to say is Alex.. I look up to you and feel as though you are a great example! Ill continue to use ur story as motivation for myself.
    Feb 28, 2013 at 7:28 AM
    Response: He's a stand up guy who put up with a lot. I think he's a limited but good Quarterback. Reid is going to be able to coach him up...KC's a good situation for him.
  • Ninerfan
    Very well put article, this was a tough season as I too was pulling for Alex. His character is unmatched.. I wish him well..
    Feb 27, 2013 at 7:04 PM
    Response: It's interesting to hear how many people were pulling for him. It's really a story of redemption. I think he'll do well under Andy Reid.
  • Dallas Niner fan
    One thing no one can argue Smith always was and always will be a class act who has honor, character, and integrity. I will miss him. Best of luck Alex.
    Feb 27, 2013 at 2:52 PM
    Response: He handled his benching with class and didn't make it a distraction that's for sure
  • Charles
    Thanks for a nice article on Alex Smith.I have rooted for Alex since he got drafted,it was shameful what they did to him at San Fran.I will now root for the Chiefs, as I did for Montana. I wish Alex the best-the consummate pro.
    Feb 27, 2013 at 12:24 PM
    Response: I'm going to be pulling for him too. I think he'll leave San Fran well thought of. Kaepernick is going to be special though.

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