In a league where change may be the only constant, it seems difficult, if not impossible, to pull any significant examples of loyalty from an organization to a player. After all, this sport has proven itself consistently to be defined by the mantra “what have you done for me lately.”
Some may want to point to Rex Ryan’s unyielding and perhaps even detrimental loyalty to Mark Sanchez as an example. But truth be told, Rex is not operating out of loyalty to Sanchez in any way. His motives are purely the product of having less faith in Tim Tebow than in Sanchez.
If at any moment Coach Ryan believed Tebow was the superior quarterback of the two, you better believe loyalty would be about as effective at keeping Tebow out of the game as Greg Williams teaching a class on non-violence and sportsmanship.
Let’s face it, professional sports breeds an environment fueled exclusively by both competition and economics on a level so fierce, so cutthroat, that loyalty serves virtually no function whatsoever—unless of course we’re talking about the loyalty of a player to their respective teams.
After all, player loyalty can have many advantages to the franchise, like retaining a quality athlete at a bargain. Having an athlete sacrifice playing time, personal achievements or prosperity in the name of loyalty might be the closest thing we get to allegiance in the NFL. Which at its’ core, is a telling reality to the one-sided nature of these relationships as far as loyalty is concerned.
Just think about the loyalty the Indianapolis Colts showed Peyton Manning last year by releasing the man who almost single-handedly made the franchise relevant. If Mr. Manning and everything he did for the Colts’ organization couldn’t be shown any loyalty, who could?
Well the answer is no one. But that doesn’t necessarily make it evil or wrong.
The reality of the NFL is defined by two things, production and economics. So, with very limited economic resources available through salary cap restrictions, teams are forced to operate exclusively through this filter: Does the player’s production/potential warrant the cost of retention? If not, well then that player better be willing to take a pay cut or his days as a member of that organization are numbered.
This basic philosophy also extends itself into the realm of playing time as well.
However, there are in fact other variables which can dictate who’s slinging the rock and who’s riding the pine. Some examples include a coach’s ego, personal bias, fear of the unknown or simply poor evaluations.
But rarely, if ever, does a coach decide to go with one player over the other based on loyalty alone. If anything, loyalty may serve as the difference-maker between a tough personnel decision, but even that’s merely a sandbag to the impending flood. And without proper reinforcements, there’s no stopping the rising tides.
In the case of Alex Smith, some may wonder whether or not Coach Harbaugh owes Alex the starting quarterback position. That, however unfortunate, is a motive severely disconnected to the realities of the NFL.
Success in the NFL is driven by meritocratic ideals, plain and simple. If an organization makes a habit of playing the fan-favorite, the old legend, or the guy with the big contract, all while forsaking the element of talent and production, then expect dysfunction and failure.
Sure Alex Smith has played impressively over the last two seasons under Harbaugh, but he also demonstrated significant limitations as a quarterback, specifically in getting the ball downfield and orchestrating an explosive offense. This style of play has yielded a high win percentage primarily because the 49ers have had the most dominating defense in the NFL during that time.
Smith has benefited greatly by not having to outscore his opponents in a shootout, which has validated his cautious, low-risk style of football. It's one in which the coaching staff and savvy fans have clearly seen through. Sure Alex Smith has been serviceable and efficient, but how confident are we in him when the defense struggles?
Colin Kaepernick offers the 49ers an opportunity to finally open up the offense and become both explosive and efficient, at a level which hasn’t been seen since the glory days of Steve Young.
And so, based on this merit, he clearly eclipses the known yet limited assets of one Alex Smith.
So at this point, Coach Harbaugh has rightly given Alex Smith perhaps the only thing for which he’s owed, and that is the truth. Sure he may be disappointed to hear this truth, nor will he likely agree with it. But we must remember, an NFL locker room has 53 men all thoroughly convinced of their own glorious personal destinies. It is the coaches’ duty to decide who gives the team the best chance at winning in both the short term, and the long term.
As for loyalty, profit is where an organization’s unflappable devotion can be found—even winning is simply a means to this end.