Alex Smith: What the 49ers QB Can Learn from Steve DeBerg
But before dissecting the future of Alex Smith, it's important to know that history often repeats itself, and in Smith's case, his narrative may resemble that of another former 49er from over 30 years ago.
When Bill Walsh took over as head coach of the 49ers in 1979, he inherited a deficient quarterback by the name of Steve DeBerg. DeBerg's rookie performance in 1978 produced 22 interceptions and a 45 percent completion rate, subpar statistics regardless of era.
So did Bill Walsh clean house by replacing DeBerg with his newly drafted quarterback out of the University of Notre Dame, Joe Montana?
No, in fact Walsh made lemons out of lemonade by making DeBerg a better quarterback. In DeBerg's sophomore campaign under new head coach Bill Walsh, his passer rating soared along with his completion percentage.
DeBerg also threw twice as many touchdowns while cutting his interception percentage in half. This would have been shocking had Walsh not previously accomplished similar results with quarterbacks like Dan Fouts and Ken Anderson.
Walsh hoped that his untested rookie (Montana) would learn from watching DeBerg, thereby avoiding the mistakes DeBerg routinely made, such as succumbing to pressure in the pocket or blindly throwing the ball into traffic.
In 1980, Walsh began easing Montana into the starting role, frequently rotating him and DeBerg behind center. Then came game against the New Orleans Saints that saw the 49ers down 35-7 at halftime. The game looked like a lost cause before it was over, but Joe Montana rallied the team to a 38-35 victory, thereby ending the so-called quarterback controversy. Montana would be the 49ers quarterback going forward and DeBerg would be traded away to the Denver Broncos in the off-season.
The rest they say is history.
Joe Montana went on to win four Super Bowls, eight Pro Bowl selections and would retire after the 1994 season, but DeBerg would play well into his 40s for six different teams and finally retire after the 1998 season.
DeBerg never went to a Pro Bowl, never won a Super Bowl and never led the league in touchdowns, completions or passer rating. However, DeBerg learned to be a useful quarterback and owed much of that to Bill Walsh.
While playing for the Kansas City Chiefs in the late 1980s, DeBerg said of Walsh, "People call me a smart and intelligent quarterback, and I'm not a smart or intelligent person. I was taught to be a smart and intelligent quarterback by Bill Walsh.'' (h/t orlandosentinel.com)
And the same can be said decades later for Alex Smith as he owes the resuscitation of his career to current 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh.
When comparing Smith's first six years in the league to the last year and a half, it's a night versus day comparison. Harbaugh simplified the offense for Smith and built up his confidence, even as Harbaugh pursued other talent through the draft and free agency.
As Bill Walsh evaluated Montana and DeBerg while improving their skill set, so has Jim Harbaugh evaluated Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick while grooming them to be exceptional quarterbacks.
Unfortunately, the quarterback position is unlike most others in football. A team can have multiple starters at defensive back, linebacker, lineman or receiver, but at quarterback, there can only be one starter in a game.
And with two consecutive and convincing victories under his belt, the starting quarterback job is Kaepernick's to lose. So if Alex Smith's career as a 49er is just now beginning to end, Smith ought to feel confident as DeBerg did decades ago that he has learned enough to assure himself of a long career in the National Football League, even if it means playing for another team.
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