Alex Smith: Where Is the San Francisco 49er in His Career?
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Alex Smith is entering his eighth year as a pro. His passer rating has improved with each year (with the exception of 2008, when he didn't play), and in 2011, at 27, he reached 90.7 percent.
On the other hand, he also led top QBs in sacks with 44.
He is sometimes dismissed as an accomplished journeyman, an increasingly reliable "efficiency player" who can't throw deep—he's not even on most leaderboards in that category—but he can manage a game well and occasionally shows true brilliance.
Still, his critics insist that the best he could ever be is a Matt Schaub-type player. Or else, a Matt Hasselbeck.
Yet his passer rating this last year is well above Hasselbeck's, as well as Rivers', Vick's and Newton's ratings. And if the bottom line wins, in his seventh season Schaub went 6-10. In 2011, he went 7-3 in the 10 games he played.
The question is, where is Smith in his career arc? Are his best games behind him or in front of him?
Consider some QBs who are great or near-great, or at the least well-remembered, and where they were at this point in their careers. These players are not necessarily comparable to Smith in terms of arm strength, style of play or the magic chemistry they create to win, but these are all pros who have had long careers.
And all have been noted for their courage, for their unwillingness to lose.
What you notice is that, very often, a career includes a big year in the first three, then falls off, then resumes. A classic bell curve is unusual. Often, you also see the best years late in a career.
Now, of course, there are nearly an infinite number of factors that make-or-break a game, much less a season, so this kind of analysis is really just speculation based on a few statistics. Still, it's interesting to see where other quarterbacks were at this point in their careers.
(All statistics used in this presentation come from either profootballfocus.com or pro-football-reference.com.)
Rich Gannon, 2002
Rich Gannon, a fourth-round pick in 1987, played for 17 years. His seventh season was a bust in Washington. He was 28 and started in four of eight games.
The next season he landed in Kansas, where he played sparingly for two seasons. In the third season, he began to assert himself. Then, in 1999, he went to Oakland, where he bloomed. In 2002, he went to football heaven.
The next two seasons were his denouement, but the point is that it took 11 seasons for Gannon to find his mark.
YA Tittle, who is now 85, played for 17 years; 10 of those were with the 49ers. He was 28 in his seventh year, in 1954; he went 6-4-1. From a stat view, the season was only remarkable because he had the lowest interception rate of his career: 3-to-1.
In fact, he was eight seasons away from his two best years, which were with the NY Giants. In 1963, he directed a 11-2-0 season and reached a 104.8 passing rate.
His career reached a plateau in the fourth year, which continued until his 15th. Then he came into his own.
Roger Staubach played 11 seasons with only one team, the Dallas Cowboys. But look at his seventh season: While he had three fourth-quarter comebacks and led four game-winning drives, the team went 9-4. He was 33.
Staubach had a huge year in 1971—NFL Player of the Year and Super Bowl MVP—but only played four games the next year. His best years were still ahead.
In fact, it was after his seventh season that he produced his best work, which culminated in 1978 when he won the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award. His next season, statistically, was even better. Like Smith, he took a lot of sacks: 45 in his sixth year.
Drew Brees, 2011 highlights
Among the very best QBs of all time by nearly any measure, in 11 years, Drew Brees had great seasons in his fourth and sixth years, but dismal seasons in his seventh and eighth years. He then reeled off three great years.
His arc of success has been pretty constant, despite the up-and-down success of some of the marquee players around him. Interestingly, in his eighth year, at 29, he threw for 600 yards, but on fewer completions and attempts than in previous years.
He is one of the great game managers of all time.
Young played for 15 years. His completion rate of 52 percent in his first year was virtually the same in his last year, at 53 percent. His high of 70 percent was in his 10th year, followed by three very steady years after that.
In his seventh year in 1991, the 49ers went 5-5-0. Young was 30 years old. The next year became the beginning of the "glory years," with team records of 14-2, 10-6 and 13-3.
Then the off years, due in part to injury, followed by two more very good years. In his last nine seasons, he never had a losing record.
Fran Tarkenton played for 18 years, which is extraordinary in itself. On the other hand, these were 14-game seasons, save the last in 1978. Thus, he played in 28 fewer games than he would have in a 16-game schedule.
Still, his longevity was remarkable, especially considering his ability as a scrambler.
In his seventh year, at age 27, he was traded to the New York Giants. He led the team to a 7-7 season, which was distinguished by his TD percentage, the highest in his career, and yards thrown, the second highest.
He threw for 3,088 yards, which, as Alex Smith has pointed out—albeit in an awkward context—means little. Tarkenton's eighth year was identical. In fact, his five years with the Giants were all par or sub-par.
He did not have a big year until 1973 when, back with the Vikings in his 11th year, the team had several playoff appearances.
"The Snake" played for 15 years. Arguably, his best year was with Oakland in 1976, his seventh season as a pro.
His QB rating reached 103. He had his highest completion rate and threw the most TDs in his career, 27.
In the following years, he fell off his game, the one exception being the 1980 season played with Houston. His arc is a classic bell curve.
In his seventh season, Joe Montana was 29 and coming off a Super Bowl win and a 102.9 passer rating. The team went 9-6 and the next season, his eighth year, he played in only eight games and went 6-2.
If he was the greatest QB to play the game—with the exception of Tom Brady—it was not because of his ability to throw long. It was his accuracy and acumen.
He was the premier manager, which may have been as much the result of his temperament as his knowledge of the game.
In the end, Alex Smith is no Joe Montana, but he may be much more than the clever, careful journeyman that has been his lot. The true test of his career will, like any player, be less a reflection of statistics and more the simple matter of winning, and the courage he can exert in the process.