San Francisco 49ers: How Will Alex Smith Be Remembered?
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It is the end of an era in San Francisco.
Fox Sports reported the trade would send Alex Smith, the 49ers' former No. 1 overall pick, to the Chiefs in exchange for two draft picks, a second-round pick in the 2013 draft (No. 34 overall) and a mid-round pick in the 2014 draft.
While the trade cannot be finalized before March 12, the deal all but signifies the end of a controversial "roller coaster" for the former 49ers quarterback.
Smith eventually won out and was selected by then-head coach Mike Nolan.
In a way, Smith had the odds of success stacked against him before he even took the field wearing a 49er uniform.
San Francisco was an abysmal 2-14 the year prior, and despite the beginning phases of a long-timed rebuilding program, Smith would be "thrown into the melee" of a team looking to climb out of the proverbial laughing stock of the NFL. In his rookie season, he enjoyed little success, recording only one passing touchdown while throwing 11 interceptions (via pro-football-reference.com).
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The following year, Smith seemed to progress when the 49ers hired Norv Turner as their offensive coordinator.
Smith and Turner developed a chemistry, and with added weapons like the newly drafted tight-end Vernon Davis, Smith showed he was improving. In 2006, he threw 16 touchdowns along with 16 interceptions (via pro-football-reference.com).
In 2007, the 49ers were hopeful that Smith had made the transformation from a wide-eyed rookie into a young and developing star; something that would warrant the use of a No. 1 overall draft pick.
But a shoulder injury against the Seattle Seahawks would hamper his season and, in a way, cloud the young quarterback's career forever.
Smith's struggles following the setback were publicly called out by Nolan, who stated that Smith was not fighting through the injury (via nbcsports.com).
The incident created a rift between the two that carried over into 2008, when Smith was benched again from an injury and then forced to compete with journeymen quarterbacks Shaun Hill and J.T. O'Sullivan.
Nolan was eventually fired and replaced by linebackers coach Mike Singletary. Smith, who was rumored to be released by the 49ers, was retained after taking a significant pay cut. Despite the restructuring of his contract, he still struggled in spite of occasional signs of greatness.
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Fans repeatedly booed him on the field, culminating in one of his lowest moments as a 49er.
Playing against the Philadelphia Eagles in 2010, Smith fumbled during the fourth quarter which resulted in some of the loudest boos ever heard during his career.
The incident seemed to define what Smith had gone through. The fans wanted him gone and the coaches had no faith in him.
To be fair, Smith had not been dealt a fair hand up to that point.
In all, Smith spent his 49ers career under three different head coaches, seven different offensive coordinators and a variety of systems and offenses.
Few questioned his intelligence, and even fewer questioned his maturity and dignity during those 49er rebuilding years. Yet there were always questions regarding his ability to be a top quarterback and live up to the expectations he had when he was drafted in 2005.
Then came Jim Harbaugh.
When Harbaugh took over the head coaching position in 2011, Smith was given another shot at becoming a reputable quarterback.
Harbaugh expressed interest in working with Smith, and Smith must have felt positive about the prospects of working with a head coach who knew the position. Unlike Nolan and Singletary, Harbaugh had NFL quarterback experience.
He also knew what it took to create a successful and dynamic football team.
Of Smith, Harbaugh said,
'I wanted to get to know him. I had never met him,' Harbaugh said last week of his first meeting with Smith in January 2011. 'I was just kind of looking in through the keyhole. But I guess the things that I wanted to know, if you boiled it down to one thing, was, did he want to start? Did he want be in the fire? Or did he want to wear the ball cap backward and backup somewhere?' (via nbcsports.com)
Things finally seemed to fall into place for Smith and the 49ers.
During the 2011 season, Smith enjoyed his best season up to that point, passing for 3,144 yards, 17 touchdowns and only five interceptions.
He was ninth overall in passer rating with 90.7 (pro-football-reference.com). He also led San Francisco to seven fourth quarter comebacks.
Despite the success, Smith was sacked 44 times and there were questions regarding his mobility and awareness in the pocket.
Smith eventually led the 49ers into the playoffs as NFC Western Division champions. His signature game came against the New Orleans Saints in the divisional round when he led San Francisco to a dramatic 36-32 victory.
One of Smith's highlights prompted 49ers radio announcer Ted Robinson to call out, "Never doubt Alex Smith again" (via huliq.com).
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Despite losing to the New York Giants in the NFC championship game the following week, all signs seemed to point to the 49ers' faith in Smith.
Yet in the subsequent offseason, San Francisco showed interest in the recently released Peyton Manning, who eventually signed with the Denver Broncos. Regardless of the drama, Smith signed a three-year contract with the 49ers and was poised to return as the team's starter.
In 2012, Smith appeared to pick up right where he left off, leading the 49ers to an impressive 6-2 start over the first eight games.
During that span, Smith was among the league leaders in pass completions (pro-football-reference.com).
Then came the Week 9 matchup against the St. Louis Rams.
In the second quarter, Smith suffered a concussion that forced him to exit the game. This opened the door for backup Colin Kaepernick.
Kaepernick possessed all the things that Smith did not.
He had a much stronger arm, was mobile in the pocket, and was capable of more big plays. Although he was also inexperienced, he did not have to endure the tenure of seven different offensive coordinators like Smith had.
With Kaepernick quickly emerging, Smith was immediately given the back-up role after being cleared to play. He had his frustrations with Harbaugh's choice and made it clear that he felt that he had done nothing wrong to warrant the substitution (sportsnet.ca).
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Regardless, the 49ers were moving forward with Kaepernick and Smith's days in San Francisco were numbered.
In a way, Smith's concussion was the "death blow" to his 49er tenure.
Following the 49ers loss to the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII, there were speculations about what San Francisco would do with the disgruntled quarterback.
Smith requested a release so he could sign with whichever team he felt would be mutually benefited (sfgate.com). Some analysts predicted the 49ers would most likely trade him and get some value in return.
Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News thought that would be the most plausible option for both parties (mercurynews.com). Other columnists, like Mark Purdy of the San Jose Mercury News, speculated it would be in the best interest of the 49ers to keep Smith as a backup in case Kaepernick flopped or was injured next season (via sgvtribune.com).
Through the entire process, and similar to his career in San Francisco, Smith remained supportive of the franchise, his teammates and the fans (deseretnews.com).
Even though he had made statements about his frustrations and had also requested a release, Smith remained dignified and mature, typical of his character spanning his NFL career thus far.
Eventually, the 49ers got their way by sending Smith to Kansas City. San Francisco can look toward improving their already talented franchise even more with the added draft picks (cbssports.com).
In the wake of the trade, 49er fans will probably remember Smith for what he was: A promising quarterback who, thanks in part to the 49ers coaching woes and injuries, never quite developed into the star player once hoped for.
What they should remember him for was his character and eventual success he found during his last two seasons.
They should also remember that Smith was a major factor in getting the 49ers back to prominence.
The 49ers are currently among the best teams in the NFL. That process did not happen overnight.
Even though Kaepernick is the 49ers quarterback of the future, San Francisco should look back at what Smith did for, and endured with, this franchise. He was not part of the problem, but an integral part of the solution, and fans should be thankful.
If Smith deserves anything from his days in a 49er uniform, it would be respect.
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