On December 31, 2011, things were looking up for both Alex Smith and Carson Palmer.
Smith's 49ers were 12-3 and one game away from clinching a first-round bye in the 2012 NFL playoffs, and all they had to do was beat the lowly St. Louis Rams. The Oakland Raiders were 8-7 and were a win and a Denver Broncos' loss away from winning the AFC West, and the struggling Broncos had to beat the suddenly red-hot Kansas City Chiefs.
After Denver had lost to Kansas City, the Raiders just had to beat the mediocre San Diego Chargers at home to clinch their first playoff berth since 2002.
The 49ers beat the Rams thanks to a nice performance from Smith, who completed 20 of 30 passes for 213 yards and a touchdown (Smith also ran for a touchdown). Palmer threw for 417 yards and two touchdowns as the Raiders scored 26 points.
The Chargers, however, scored 38 points.
Even after coming up short, the Raiders felt like they could win the AFC West in 2012. Palmer threw 16 interceptions in 10 games with the Raiders, but he also averaged a remarkable 8.4 yards per pass attempt. If Palmer could cut down on the interceptions and the other teams in the AFC West struggled, the Raiders figured they could easily have captured the AFC West crown.
Then Peyton Manning signed with the Broncos.
Palmer threw 14 interceptions in 15 games in 2012, averaging 7.1 yards per attempt. Oakland limped through a disastrous 4-12 campaign before dealing Palmer to the Cardinals and bringing in Matt Flynn—who threw for six touchdowns in Week 17 of the 2011 season—from Seattle.
Smith had much better times than Palmer as he threw for three touchdowns and ran for one in San Francisco's thrilling 36-32 divisional-round triumph over the New Orleans Saints.
In the 2012 NFL playoffs, Smith scored six touchdowns with no interceptions or lost fumbles. His completion percentage (70.2 percent) led the league in 2012, and his 104.1 passer rating ranked third among players with at least 215 passing attempts.
However, Smith suffered a concussion in Week 10 and Colin Kaepernick took over. To make a long story short, Kaepernick never looked back.
Smith didn't start another game (despite being cleared to return by Week 12) and was traded to the Chiefs in late February.
Now, the two former Bay Area quarterbacks will look to make their former franchises pay for trading them with chances to start and take their struggling franchises back to the top of the NFL hierarchy.
Even though the Chiefs suffered a miserable 2-14 record in 2012, Smith is in a much better situation than Palmer.
The Chiefs had six Pro Bowlers, more than 23 other teams. Jamaal Charles recovered from a brutal ACL tear in Week 2 of the 2011 season to average a solid 5.3 yards per carry. He should be even better with a legitimate top-15 (and arguably higher) quarterback sharing the backfield.
Dwayne Bowe was locked up with a five-year deal worth $95 million earlier this offseason so Smith will have a top target to develop chemistry with and target. Despite having a terrible quarterback play all season, Bowe was targeted 114 times and caught 59 passes for 801 yards for an average of 13.6 yards per catch.
In 2010, Bowe caught 15 touchdowns and averaged 16.1 yards per catch, so he can take over and tear up any secondary.
Kansas City has a decent offensive line as well and it is likely to take mature, NFL-ready left tackle Luke Joeckel with the first pick in the draft.
The 49ers have a good offensive line, one of the league's best running backs in Frank Gore and solid receiving weapons in Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis. So, on offense, both teams have similar talent.
Smith was effective in San Francisco because he had help. Luckily for him, he has help in Kansas City too.
Palmer has some help as well. Larry Fitzgerald is arguably the most talented wide receiver in the league.
Because Kevin Kolb, Ryan Lindley, John Skelton and Brian Hoyer were the Cardinals quarterbacks in 2012 and while Fitzgerald's stats weren't incredible, he still caught 71 passes for 798 yards and four touchdowns.
With Palmer, Fitzgerald's numbers can definitely escalate. Palmer averaged 8.4 yards per attempt in 2011, and while he was a lot worse in 2012, Palmer and Fitzgerald can develop a strong bond and help win games for the Cardinals.
Arizona signed Rashard Mendenhall this offseason. If Mendenhall can revert to his pre-injury ways, Palmer could have a solid rushing attack to work with as well.
Even though Palmer threw for more than 295 yards in eight of his 14 full games, he is prone to turnovers and is inconsistent.
You could argue that a fresh start would be good for him, but his switch from Cincinnati to Oakland did not go smoothly either. Remains that Palmer went 4-12 in his last 16 games with the Raiders (not including Oakland’s Week 17 game in which Palmer did not play), and Palmer’s record with the Raiders was 8-17.
So without tons of help in Arizona (the Cardinals also had the league’s worst rushing attack in 2012), it’s fair to assume that Palmer won’t be great.
The NFC West is probably the toughest division in the NFL, and having four games total against the mighty San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks will not be fun for Arizona.
Smith will have to deal with Manning and the hungry Broncos twice every year, but there aren’t many strong wild-card teams in the AFC.
If the Chiefs come together and Smith develops good chemistry with his teammates, Kansas City can definitely make the playoffs for the first time since 2010.
Arizona? Unless Palmer consistently protects the ball and performs like a big-play quarterback (which didn’t happen often in Oakland), the Cardinals will have a much tougher time.
Both the 49ers and Raiders are fine in getting rid of Smith and Palmer. Smith is definitely the better quarterback, and while he is more conservative, he still managed to score points. San Francisco averaged 23.7 points in games Smith started while the Raiders averaged a paltry 16.6 pointsin games Palmer started.
However, the 49ers found a more-explosive option in Kaepernick and the Raiders took in Flynn, who they are hoping can be that player.
Arizona is getting a player who cannot be worse than its 2012 quarterbacks, but isn’t a game-changer, and it’s possible it drafts a quarterback to push Palmer.
Kansas City, on the other hand, is getting a player who can take it to the playoffs and a guy who is a great fit for its offense.
Unless the injury bug hits Smith or he starts to struggle mightily, Kansas City is getting the better player and the better fit.