San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith has endured his share of criticism over the years, but what does Hall-of-Fame quarterback Joe Montana think of him? Last month, ESPN Radio interviewed the former 49er great, and they discussed Smith's progression since coach Jim Harbaugh arrived:
Everybody forgets that this is the first time he’s (Alex Smith) had the same system for two years in a row, for what, seven or eight years now? I always try to tell people to imagine if you switched jobs every year for the next 8 years. Even if you went directly across and took the same job somewhere else, how difficult it would be to be successful at it.
Now this makes perfect sense. The most successful quarterbacks in the NFL were groomed under the same offensive coordinator in their most formative years. Charlie Weiss guided Tom Brady for his first five years in the league, and they won three Super Bowls together. Joe Philbin mentored Aaron Rodgers for five years, and they also won a Super Bowl as Rodgers grew into an elite passer.
Montana further explained Smith's previous struggles before Harbaugh’s arrival:
At one point, one of the guys down at the 49ers gave me some video and said, "will you watch Alex?" And I watched about five minutes and I called him back and go, "Well, your offense sucks! You've put this poor guy in a terrible situation. You guys are in third-and-long all the time, and there’s nobody even on the screen that I can even see half the time. So what’s the guy going to do? There’s no place to dump the ball… "
Again, Montana makes an excellent point. A quarterback needs a solid supporting cast to be successful, and for the longest take, Smith only had subpar targets like Antonio Bryant and Arnaz Battle. Conversely, elite quarterbacks like Peyton Manning have had an array of reliable targets like Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne.
Montana went on to say that Smith has more support now than ever, and it’s apparent in how he plays more confidently:
I just think that now he’s in a system that for a quarterback is fun to be in. There is a progression. There are chances to throw it down the field if it presents itself. If it doesn’t, you have a lot of options. I think he’s finding out that he can make those big throws when he has to.
It’s not often that a quarterback earns praise from a legendary quarterback like Joe Montana, but for Alex Smith, it should mean a lot. Montana added, "I think the turnaround has been great, and it’s fun to watch him again."