Life isn't fair.
Most people understand this because they have experienced it first hand. And that being said, this is not an article intended to claim Alex Smith as a victim or even debate the QB controversy in San Francisco.
I'll leave that up to this guy. And this article can shed some light on it, too. He wrote everything I think about the situation but could never articulate, so go there now if you want to discuss who should be starting for the 49ers.
This article is just here to make an example of the situation, and hopefully pinpoint why Smith's early-career problems were more a product of his environment than Alex himself. Jim Harbaugh's decision to move with Kaepernick is his alone, but it begs for this example to be made.
In 2005, Smith was drafted number one overall by the 49ers, who chose him instead of a quarterback from Cal you might recognize today. In hindsight, the move was utterly idiotic. I'm sure if the 49ers could go back in time and do it all over, they would draft Aaron Rodgers—he's simply a better quarterback than Smith ever was and ever will be.
And while the following list will come across as excuses (they are) for Smith's poor play in his first few years in San Francisco, I promise I am just making a point. In six seasons prior to Harbaugh taking over, Smith dealt with:
—A porous offensive line
—A weak defense
—Vocally negative fanbase
—A new offense every season
We all knew the trouble he faced at the beginning of his career. Does that excuse him for playing so badly when he had the chance? Not one bit. But put up against those circumstances, I find it hard to believe that any quarterback short of Peyton Manning or Tom Brady wouldn't struggle.
I remember well the pains of Smith's first six seasons in the NFL. Since day one, I've been a staunch supporter of the kid. That disastrous one-touchdown, 11-interception rookie season was forgotten by me because "he was a rookie."
Maybe I believed in him after 2006, when despite a 7-9 season (and being sacked 35 times) and many of the hurdles listed above, Smith threw for nearly 3,000 yards and 16 touchdowns. In a few of those games, I saw flashes of a star. It made sense that we drafted him, because he clearly had potential.
And today, I'm still a No. 11-wearing, any-excuse-producing fan boy of Smith's. Luckily, he hasn't forced me to make many excuses since the start of the 2011 season. And the reason I bring this up, is because I literally would come up with any reason to get Smith off the hook.
If he threw a screen pass into the chest of a linebacker, I would say the receiver must have broken off the route. If he held the ball in the pocket too long and took a bad sack, I'd praise the opposition's coverage.
Delay of game? That was on the coaches as far as I was concerned.
Don't get me wrong; I knew it was all ridiculous. I knew that this player in whom I saw grit and talent and football smarts wasn't living up to the absurdly high bar our fanbase had set for a franchise-saving, number-one pick. I even resigned myself to the notion that he never would get there. But I still supported him because I believed he would eventually win in San Francisco. That he was better than what he was getting credit for.
I was right.
This isn't a story about character, either. Both Smith and Kaepernick are humble teammates, quiet leaders and respectful players. And those facts won't stop me from reminding everyone that when Smith had the chance to skip town (multiple times, might I add), he stuck around. He even restructured his rich contract to stay in the red and gold, because he knew he owed that to us.
Last year, Smith finally endeared himself to the fanbase and proved he was more than a "game manager" by bringing the team one muffed punt away from a date in the Super Bowl against Brady and the Patriots.
For me, where it gets funny is about four weeks ago.
A late slide, an unlucky hit to the helmet and the Alex Smith Era in San Francisco may, frankly, be over. The previous 26 games had been a source of pride for me, sticking with the guy for so long and finally proving everyone wrong after seven difficult years.
And it's almost a work in psychology, or sociology, or some kind of -ology, that where Smith's failings were evident because he had no shield in those first few years, Kaepernick gets a pass. Those same people that ridiculed Smith for years and years are making the same excuses for Kaepernick now that I made for Smith back then.
Sure, it's too early to judge Kaepernick, and yes it's very obvious that he is better than Smith was at the same point in their careers. But still, Kaepernick was thrust into a successful situation with this year's 49ers.
A Super Bowl favorite with the most ferocious defense in the league, a top coaching staff, a good offensive line and one of the best running games around? Michael Crabtree, Vernon Davis and Mario Manningham to throw to? Talk about a sweet deal.
And Smith's struggles and Kaepernick's early success aren't unprecedented. With rare exceptions (Andrew Luck in Indianapolis, for example), the Alex Smith set of circumstances is nearly always going to end in disaster for that player. The scenario that unfolded for Kaepernick will usually result in at least moderate success.
I know, I know. Just call me Captain Obvious. But Rodgers was tutored by a legendary quarterback, spent three seasons learning the game and the playbook from a uniform coaching staff and came into the starting QB job equipped with an explosive offense.
He probably would have been great eventually anyway (the great ones always seem to shine through, no matter the circumstances), but any failings in his first season starting were likely brushed aside in lieu of his inexperience and the strength of a winning team around him.
Likewise, Kaepernick has been put in the best situation possible for a debut, so a successful result is predictable. Where in 2005 an Alex Smith fumbled pitch would have lost him the game and the fan's favor, Kaepernick is excused because of a bad play call.
Where in 2005 a Smith brain fart (very technical term that encompasses turnovers, poor clock management, bad decisions, etc.) might cost the 49ers a possession and a lot of angry fan mail, a Kaepernick brain fart is forgotten because the defense takes an interception back to the house.
My whole point is that what we have here, aside from a debate, is a perfect microcosm of why a young quarterbacks' success is largely a product of the situation they are put in.
Though I am Team Smith, I will make no excuses for him. I want him to start for the 49ers not because he "deserves" it or any of that nonsense—but because I think he is the best option for this team, this year, this moment.
And like all fans, I just want to win.
Is Kaepernick going to be a better quarterback than Smith? Probably. Is he already a much more gifted athlete? Absolutely. Does this, coupled with his amazing supporting cast, mean his stupid mistakes should be ignored? Does this mean Kaepernick should get a free pass for giving away 10 points and losing to an inferior team?
No way. But that is how it will happen, because that's how it always happens. That's the world of sports. Heck, that's the world of life. Double standards exist and thrive. It isn't fair, but we make like Alex Smith and move on.
That truth has never been more evident than right now in the 49ers' backfield.
You can follow Jeremy on Twitter @Jamblinman.
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