Alex Smith has been, and remains, one of the most enigmatic figures in the Bay Area sports scene. This is a region that wanted the San Francisco 49ers to take local boy Aaron Rodgers over Smith in the 2005 NFL draft.
The former quarterback for Urban Meyer at Utah didn't do himself any favors in terms of winning over 49ers fans in his first few seasons as a pro. In fact, some had come to the conclusion that Smith was merely a bust following just his third NFL season.
Things changed heading into the 2011 season. Jim Harbaugh came in to coach San Francisco and created a solid relationship with the now-veteran quarterback. The 49ers went 13-3 and made it all the way to the NFC Championship Game. Still, San Francisco appeared to flirt with Peyton Manning in the offseason, showing us all that it might not have real confidence in Smith moving forward.
In the end, Smith returned on a three-year contract. However, fans still question whether he can lead this team to the Super Bowl. The 49ers are now 5-2 and in first place through the first seven weeks of the season.
It's now time to take a look at how Smith's game has evolved during his up-and-down tenure with the 49ers. This is something we can all look at over the course of the final nine games of the 2012 NFL season. At the very least, it might give us a basis for analysis moving forward.
The major knock about Smith coming out of college was the type of offense he ran at Utah. Urban Meyer's scheme focused more on Smith's agility than anything else. He wasn't asked to throw down the field a great deal, leading many to believe that he wasn't actually able to do it.
Though I have always fallen under the philosophy that as a scout, you cannot knock someone for the things he wasn't asked to do, these skeptics seem to have been right nearly eight years after the fact. More on that later.
Statistically speaking, Alex Smith has had about three different careers within his eight NFL seasons. Smith's first season saw him throw for one touchdown compared to 11 interceptions for a quarterback rating of 40.8. The simple fact that Smith threw one touchdown in 165 pass attempts is mind-boggling.
Smith was sacked 15 percent of the time he dropped back to pass as a rookie. While a lot of that had to do with his inability to get rid of the ball, the 49ers offensive line didn't do him any favors. The likes of Adam Snyder and Kwame Harris starting at each tackle position didn't help.
In short, San Francisco didn't do a good job of surrounding Smith with talent early in his career. This was magnified by the fact that an immature Brandon Lloyd was the 49ers' leading receiver in 2005.
Beyond statistics, Smith just struggled with his mechanics as a rookie. Most experts believed that he wasn't ready to be thrust into a starting role, and they would have been right in that assumption.
Sophomore Season: Rapid Progression
Turner, who helped Troy Aikman become a Super Bowl-winning quarterback 15 years earlier, was tasked with changing flaws in Smith's mechanics and helping him rebound from a disastrous rookie season. No matter our opinion of Turner the head coach, he is a hell of a quarterback guru.
Smith started all 16 games in 2006, leading San Francisco to a surprising seven-win campaign. The young quarterback threw as many touchdowns (16) as interceptions and upped his quarterback rating a whopping 34 points.
The second-year quarterback didn't throw an interception in any of his first three games, but he started to show signs of regression during an ugly 41-0 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 4.
Mechanics still seemed to plague the young quarterback. He was way too upright in his delivery and struggled stepping up into the pocket. In order for a quarterback to succeed in the NFL, he needs to be much more fluid in the lower body. This is something that Smith just wasn't doing during the early part of his career.
As you can see, he struggled a great deal bending his knees and utilizing lower-body strength to support his upper body. Instead, Smith's throwing motion seemed as awkward as any I have seen in 20 years of watching professional football. Just pick a pigskin up, go outside and see what I am talking about. Some really bad stuff here that Turner and Co. failed to fix in 2006.
I was taught at a really young age to bend my knees when going into a throwing motion. This enables you to get more zip on the ball and improve your accuracy. How this went unnoticed by coaches—and Smith—during the early part of his career is beyond me.
Injuries, Injuries and More Injuries
Anyone who claims injuries weren't one of the reasons that Alex Smith failed to progress as a quarterback early in his career is ignorant of what it takes to be a successful quarterback in the NFL.
Smith played a total of seven games in 2007 and 2008 after suffering multiple injuries to his throwing shoulder. This obviously stunted his growth and forced the 49ers to look at less-than-enviable backup options. Anyone remember J.T. O'Sullivan and Trent Dilfer? Ouch!
You simply cannot expect a quarterback to progress in terms of mechanics or play on the field if his throwing shoulder is in a sling and surgeries are required to fix it. There is only so much game tape that you can watch before it becomes apparent that experience playing the game and routine with the coaches becomes a ton more important.
These injuries also tell us a story of how the 49ers mismanaged Smith early in his career. Throw the youngest quarterback in the NFL to the wolves without an offensive line to protect him or talent on the outside, and you are looking for trouble.
One of the primary reasons that Smith was injured early in his career is the fact that he had the likes of Kwame Harris, a first-round bust, protecting his blind side. Look at what is currently going on with Kevin Kolb in Arizona—35 sacks in the first seven games of the season. That isn't sustainable if you want your quarterback to have success.
Either way, as much as we want to blame the coaching staff for Smith's early-career failures, in the end, he just didn't produce like a No. 1 overall pick. I can teach a third-grader how to read, but unless he is interested in learning, it makes no impact.
2009 and 2010: Mild Improvements
The definition of success for a quarterback in the NFL is so fickle. Is Tony Romo a successful quarterback because he puts up the stats? Is he unsuccessful because the Dallas Cowboys have won just one postseason game during his tenure there?
There are so many factors, a lot of which has to do with offensive scheme and coaching, that determines if a quarterback is successful and our perception of what it is to be a successful quarterback.
2009 saw the 49ers win eight games in Mike Singletary's first full season as the head coach. Jimmy Raye was brought in to be their offensive coordinator, replacing a fired Mike Martz. Many had figured during the offseason that Smith simply would move on to another organization to start his career anew. Instead, the enigmatic quarterback restructured his contract and returned to San Francisco.
In the end, Shaun Hill beat Smith out for the starting job and started the first five games of the season, winning three of them. Following a disastrous first half against the Houston Texans in Week 8, Singletary and Raye made the decision to replace Hill with Smith behind center.
The results were immediate. Smith threw three second-half touchdown passes, all to Vernon Davis, as the 49ers nearly came back from a 21-0 deficit. Smith ended up starting the final 10 games of the season, winning half of them. In the process, he threw 18 touchdowns compared to 12 interceptions, completed over 60 percent of his passes and accumulated an 81.5 quarterback rating.
This improvement obviously wasn't enough for Singletary, as Smith received a quick hook just seven weeks into the following season. San Francisco went with Troy Smith for the next few weeks and split duties between the two quarterbacks the remainder of the season.
It was this type of uncertainty that caused a rift between Smith and his head coach. In the end, Singletary was fired after San Francisco failed to improve upon their 8-8 record the season prior. He was fired before the 49ers' final game of the season. During the season finale against the Arizona Cardinals, with Jim Tomsula as the interim head coach, Smith threw for 276 yards in an inspired 38-7 49ers' win.
He hasn't missed a start since.
Overall, Smith threw 10 more touchdowns than interceptions, racked up nearly 5,000 passing yards and accumulated a 82.0 quarterback rating through the 2009 and 2010 seasons. Though the improvements in terms of statistics weren't great, it was obvious that the embattled quarterback was on the right path.
The Jim Harbaugh Era
The 2010 season ended with a myriad of uncertainty for this franchise. Singletary was out as head coach, the Niners had gone a full eight seasons without a winning record, and Smith appeared to be on his way out as its quarterback. Boos rained down on Smith as 49ers fans rallied behind another first-round "bust," David Carr. The wheels were coming off for both the franchise and Smith.
It just appeared that both sides would be better off ending this marriage in what would have to be considered a bitter divorce.
Things didn't change, at least in the perception of the media and fans, when Jim Harbaugh was announced as San Francisco's new head coach in January of 2011. The train of thought was simple: A new coaching staff, a new front office and a new quarterback—why not?
Well, the extended lockout that began just two months after Harbaugh was announced the 49ers head coach put this team in a precarious position. Go with a rookie quarterback that won't have a chance to learn the system during the offseason or sign a veteran from a watered-down free-agent market. Neither option seemed enviable to a rookie head coach that had the mindset to win immediately.
Instead of completely turning the page from the previous administration, Harbaugh made the then-unpopular decision to stick with Smith as the starter in an attempted to regain some continuity on the offensive side of the ball.
We all know how that story played out. San Francisco went on to win 13 games in Harbaugh's first season as its head coach, at one point winning a remarkable eight consecutive games. Smith took nearly every snap, as rookie quarterback Colin Kaepernick only came in during garbage time.
In the end, the 49ers were just a Kyle Williams overtime fumble in the NFC Championship Game from going to the Super Bowl. Smith placed himself in the lore of the franchise by leading what has to be considered one of the greatest final three minutes in NFL playoff history against the New Orleans Saints in the divisional playoffs the week prior.
Still, skeptics were bound to criticize Smith for being nothing more than a game manager. They would go on to say that San Francisco won because of a stellar defense, which isn't entirely false.
The 49ers then flirted with the idea of signing former Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning. In what has to be considered a underhanded move by the franchise, Jim Harbaugh and Trent Baalke met with the future Hall of Fame quarterback in North Carolina without as much as a "how do you do?" to Smith, the current starting quarterback.
While Harbaugh and company have denied any "real" interest in Manning, it became abundantly clear that they weren't as sold on Smith as many of us thought following a remarkable 2011 campaign.
Smith now has the 49ers at 5-2 and in first place in the NFC West through the first seven games of the 2012 season. He was among the highest-rated quarterbacks in the league through the first five weeks of the year, showing a marked improvement from even the 2011 season, at least in terms of statistics.
Following the last two games—outings that Smith has struggled a great deal in—there are now more questions about his ability to lead the 49ers to New Orleans in February. Those questions, while valid, take into account a two-game span where Smith was injured. This also represents a tremendously small sample size.
That being said, inconsistency remains an issue for the embattled quarterback. Even after working with quarterback guru Tom House in the offseason, Smith seems to still lack the fundamentals we see from some of the top quarterbacks in the league.
Here is a photo from San Francisco's season-opening win against the Green Bay Packers.
While Smith does appear to be a bit more fluid in his throwing motion from what we saw earlier in this article, he is a bit too upright when preparing to throw the ball. Not even taking into account just how fundamentally flawed that throwing motion is, it leads to passes being overthrown and inaccuracy on intermediate routes.
This is a far cry from what we saw during the offseason after Smith had worked with House in Southern California. As I mentioned before, inconsistency in terms of mechanics seems to be a huge issue for Smith, even in his seventh NFL season.
As you notice in this split, Smith's legs are bent much more on the right than they are on the left. Now go back up to the previous picture and look at the similarities, or lack thereof. The photo in the split from the left is from last season, while the photo on the right is from the 2012 offseason. Even in his impressive performance against Green Bay, Smith tended to struggle with mechanics while attempting to implement what he had learned during the offseason.
Here is a photo from the 49ers' Week 4 win against the New York Jets. Despite facing pressure, you can see that Smith remains stiff in both the upper and lower body here. This pass fell harmlessly incomplete, but it was overthrown by about five inches or so.
While that did not have a negative impact for the 49ers and Smith in their dominating victory over the Jets, fast forward a couple weeks against the New York Giants. San Francisco wasn't on its game the whole afternoon, and Smith was a primary reason for that.
It seemed at times that his accuracy was reverting back to 2009 form here. Of course, there is a common denominator. Smith's mechanics were absolutely atrocious in the 26-3 smackdown San Francisco received at the hands of the Giants.
As Smith drops back and looks to go deep down the left sideline to Delanie Walker, any idea that this pass would go for a completion was lost when you looked at Smith attempting the throw. Not only did the quarterback fail to utilize his lower body to get something into the ball, he didn't even step into it.
Instead, the ball floated down the left sideline, and Antrel Rolle came away with an interception. If Smith had actually utilized proper mechanics, that could have been a touchdown instead of an interception.
Also, look at how he went one read to the right and then immediately picked up Walker down the opposite sideline. Smith did a great job stepping up in the pocket away from the pressure, but he failed to disguise where the ball was going.
I was sitting in the stadium during this game and knew immediately where he was going with the ball. One other look off towards the middle of the field (in addition to a better follow-through) and the 49ers might have been looking at a 10-0 lead.
This type of inconsistency has been commonplace for Smith, even since Harbaugh took over as the head coach. He will go through progressions and reads in one game and then fail to utilize them the next week. He will seem mechanically sound one week and then revert back to 2009 form the following game.
While Smith's pocket presence has improved a great deal over the years, he still tends to struggle with other nuances of the quarterback position. As you saw above, Smith doesn't go through his reads progressively and has inconsistent mechanics prior to passing the ball.
Six years ago, we could have easily blamed Utah's one-read offense under Meyer for Smith's inability to actually read defensive schemes, disguise where the ball is going and go through his progressions. That time clearly has passed.
Smith needs to get it into his head to utilize the same approach on a consistent basis. Until then, he will be nothing more than an average starting quarterback in the NFL.
In order for Smith to lead San Francisco to the Super Bowl, he needs to get these issues fixed in relatively short order. You simply cannot afford to have a quarterback that continually overthrows receivers and fails to utilize proper mechanics if you are going to win the championship.
The 49ers are no longer a surprise team. They are not going to be happy with just another trip into the postseason only to get knocked out before their ultimate goal is realized. It just isn't going to happen.
Another offseason of speculation means that Smith has failed to progress to the point where there is confidence in him leading the 49ers to that ultimate goal. He is currently in the middle of his seventh NFL season, and it is hard to imagine anything changing just because he has another seven months to work on mechanics.
While I have been an avid supporter of Smith through the years, one thing is becoming abundantly clear: The 2012 season will end with him either hoisting the Lombardi or facing another offseason full of questions and speculation.
It is now Super Bowl or bust for Smith and the only franchise for which he has ever suited up.