Why the 49ers Should Consider a Long-Term Deal with Alex Smith, and Why Not
Every team is a mosaic. What the San Francisco 49ers has become in the last 12 months since Jim Harbaugh and a new staff took control is a credit to their ability to analyze the parts, re-assemble them into their vision and then get the team to believe in it.
It’s quite a complicated process, and it was made much more difficult by the fact that the labor lockout prevented Harbaugh and staff from coming into contact with the team until July. That’s why Harbaugh’s efforts, to go along with the recent drafts run by general manager Trent Baalke, have been so remarkable.
Now they’re 12-3. The defense ranks first in the NFL in many categories. Their special teams are setting standards for field position switches and kick coverages. Who knew kicker David Akers would be the team’s MVP, but with 12 wins no one is complaining because the team ranks 26th in yards gained but 15th in points scored.
In other words, no team has done more with the least amount of offensive production than the 49ers. Credit the staff, again, and credit the players.
Through all that, the toughest call Jim Harbaugh had to make was what to do at quarterback. He decided early on that Alex Smith was the team’s best chance. And Smith, given the confidence and support he apparently had never received before, responded with his best season.
The team ranks 29th in passing yards but it also has to be said that it throws the ball less than all but one team. More to the point, Smith has only five interceptions this year, which again stems from the amount of throws as well as his good decisions.
With that in mind, here are five reasons why the 49ers should consider a long-term deal with Alex Smith as well as why they shouldn’t.
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Detractors like to point out that Smith is asked to do less than other quarterbacks. It’s the sort of statement that would make Jim Harbaugh bite through a lead pipe. It’s not about doing less; it’s about doing what is needed, doing it well and doing it at the right time.
Nothing says more about a quarterback’s effectiveness than the ability to rally a team late in the game and get them to score. So remember the following road games at Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Detroit and now Seattle. On the road against good teams, Smith got the job done in the fourth quarter. (The fifth comeback win was at home against the Giants).
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It’s one of those things that either suggests that divergent forces of the universe line up just so or you just call it a fluke. But just about everyone in the NFL knows that Alex Smith is not that great throwing deep. To be precise, he’s not that accurate throwing deep to the sidelines.
But then, it has to be said that the Niners don’t have any one player that is a Randy Moss or even someone like Mike Wallace of the Steelers. Ted Ginn Jr. is the fastest player on the team but doesn’t have the best hands. Michael Crabtree is better at sitting in zones than he is at stretching them.
When given the time, Smith is deadly on intermediate throws of eight to 15 yards from sideline to sideline. Make him go up the field, however, and the ball tends to sail where it cannot be intercepted nor caught—out of bounds.
With a team built around such a strong defense and good special teams, having that big-strike capability would be a huge advantage and make them a demanding opponent to beat. For a team that has to be at peak efficiency to score, Smith’s lack of deep throwing skills on the one or two plays a game that present themselves is something that could keep them from winning a Super Bowl.
Yes—Develop for the Future
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It has to be said, though, that the 49ers' success this year means that they will draft late, and in so doing they will not get an elite receiver a la a Calvin Johnson or Julio Jones. But again we point to the Steelers and Mike Wallace (17), who now is considered one of the best deep threats in the game.
Wallace did not come out of college touted as an instant game-changer. He was a third-round pick in ’09 from Mississippi. The Steelers, to their credit, coached and coached Wallace into becoming an elite player. Of course, it helped to have Ben Roethlisberger throwing to him.
I feel the same scenario will have to be the 49ers' route. They’ll find a great talent who has doesn’t have the big stats and work with him for two or three years. Smith will get used to him, and vice versa. To the point is the fact that Smith is only 27 and has seven years of NFL experience.
That’s called industrial knowledge. He knows the game, the team and the opponents. He’s got lots more years in front of him. And he won’t be all that expensive to extend contractually.
No—Win It All Now
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Who is to say that this freak show that is the NFL’s best defense will hold together? Pro Bowlers Dashon Goldson and Carlos Rogers are on one-year contracts. NaVorro Bowman is coming on to his third year and will need a major upgrade on his contract soon.
Ahmad Brooks and Parys Haralson are made better by the presence of Patrick Willis and Justin Smith. Add in a key injury or three, such as to NT Isaac Sopoaga, Willis and Donte Whitner and just like that the invincibility of the defense is challenged.
It then becomes incumbent on the offense to assume more control of the game. Is Alex Smith capable of that? In that scenario it seems best to get a big-name, big-arm, accurate quarterback, someone who has the street cred and the talent. Perhaps it is someone who is at the end of the career in iffy health. A quarterback who may be extremely expensive in terms of contract but well worth it terms of return.
In other words, would Peyton Manning bring the Niners their sixth Lombardi Trophy?
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The secret to long-term success in the NFL is not having the best 25 players—the starters on both offense and defense and the specialists. It’s having the best depth. Teams like the Niners of the late 1980s and early ‘90s, the Cowboys of the '90s and the Patriots of late proved that good coaching to go along with good talent makes for a long-term contender.
Giving a quarterback $15 million to $20 million a year means less money for the fourth wide receiver or the second jammer on special teams. It is these guys who ultimately make a difference, for they fill in when starters go down and still play special teams.
It is that ideal, I feel, that Baalke wants the 49ers to pursue—overall depth and quality compared to having a few star players. And with that perspective, Smith fits in nicely. He’s a veteran but young, has the system down and can get better. More to the point, they have Colin Kaepernick in the wings. In two years, who is to say that CK isn’t the man?
In the mean time, it makes sense to keep Smith for three more years.