Alex Smith: Ryan Leaf Or Troy Aikman?

Jonathan BeckmanContributor IJune 13, 2009

Is Alex Smith Ryan Leaf or Troy Aikman?


“With the 1st pick of the 2005 National Football League Draft, the San Francisco 49ers selects Alex Smith: Quarterback, from the University of Utah”.

Remember that?

As a die-hard 49ers fan, I remember being excited, at the same time confused.

Before the 2005 draft, I was excited & poised for the 49ers to select Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart, from the University of Southern California. When the time came for Matt to make a decision, he chose college life- girls, parties, girls, parties… girls & parties, over N.F.L life. Do you blame him? I’m sure, if he was allowed too, he would still be in college playing- based on his NFL play. With Leinart’s name off the board, there wasn’t a “clear-cut” 1st pick of the draft. Awesome, right? The year the 49ers have the first pick, there isn’t a clear, definitive number 1 pick. No matter how you look at it, it’s still a privilege to be able to choose the first pick- a privilege that great organizations take advantage of…

That being said, the top 12 prospects on the board for the 49ers to pick were : QB Alex Smith, RB Ronnie Brown, WR Braylon Edwards, RB Cedric Benson, RB Cadillac Williams, CB/DB Adam “Pac-Man” Jones, WR Troy Williamson, CB/DB Antrelle Rolle, CB/DB Carlos Rogers, WR Mike Williams, DE/OLB Demarcus Ware, and OLB Shawn Merriman.

Elite prospects, yes, but what were the needs of 49ers? Let’s be honest, the 2005 49ers team had a lot of holes- this was a rebuilding year.

The Quarterback slot was empty, due to the departure of Jeff Garcia; the 49ers haven’t had a Wide Receiver since Terrell Owens; the defense needed a leader, a pass-rusher, and defensive back. So, there were a few directions to go in? After analyzing the prospects, then you have to look at scarcity of the position: Quarterbacks are hard to come by, especially elite ones; that’s an option. If your patient, Wide receiver’s tend to be available in the later rounds- drafting a Wide Receiver with the first pick is a bit of a stretch (even though Braylon Edwards would have been awesome). There were a few other options to consider in Ware and Merriman, but this team needed a leader- a face. Alex Smith was their choice. Question is/was: Who is Alex Smith?

In three seasons at Utah, Smith completed 389-of-587 pass attempts for 5,203 yards and 47 touchdowns while throwing just 8 interceptions. He also ran 286 times for 1,072 yards and 15 touchdowns. In 2004, he was the Mountain West Conference Player of the year and graduated college in two years with a 3.71 GPA in economics; 2004 Sporting News & Sports Illustrated Offensive Player of the Year. These statistics aren’t one of an average player; these are elite numbers for a prominent student/athlete. Not only were his personal statistics excellent, but his leadership “numbers” were that much more impressive: As a starting QB for two years at UTAH (freshman & sophomore years), his record was 21-1. He’s a winner!

After getting to know who/ what Alex Smith is/was all about, I was pretty confident and content with Alex Smith being the #1 pick for the S.F. 49ers. How did all of his college accolades translate into the Pro game?

As a rookie, Alex played in nine games (started seven of them). Unfortunately, in week 6 against the Redskins, his injury woes started. He suffered a knee injury against the Washington Redskins, which caused him to miss the next 4 games. On the season, he completed 84-165 passes for 875 yards; threw 1 touchdown and had 11 interceptions. Alex Smith’s next season was a good one- a huge step in the right direction: led the 49ers to a 7-9 record; 2890 passing yards, 16 td & 16 interceptions. After a big step in 2006, he took twenty steps back in 2007. Alex started the season off 2-0, after beating the Arizona Cardinals on Monday Night Football and the St. Louis Rams the following week. During another divisional battle in week 3 against the Seahawks, DT/DE Rocky Bernard “rocked” Alex, and caused him to have a grade-3 separation of the shoulder. This injury triggered him to miss a bunch of games; he made an attempt to come back later in the season, but just aggravated the injury even further. What a great way to start your NFL career, as the #1 pick of an organization- it couldn’t have worked out any worst for him or any player in his position.

If you compare that to Troy Aikman’s first few years, they are pretty similar (without the unfortunate injuries): In year one, Troy led his team to a 0-11 record; 1749 passing yards, 9 td and 18 interceptions (Troy started 11 games compared to 7 with Alex). Troy’s sophomore season: He led his team to a 7-8 season; 2579 passing yards, 11 td & 18 interceptions. Again, he had another dismal year. In his 3rd year, Troy played 12 games; led his team to a 7-5 record; 2754 passing yards, 11 td & 11 interceptions.  After these three seasons, most NFL experts & the average fan would have never thought that Mr. Aikman would have been elected into the NFL Hall of Fame. But he was!

In our society, the mindset is: “What have you done for me lately?” That is unfortunate because you discredit what an athlete/person has done leading up to this current “failure”. One’s history is extremely important! How can you judge someone on what he did today, and forget what he did yesterday? It’s a simple-minded view, for simple-minded people. Some might take what I just said personally, but its reality.

Alex Smith has the intelligence, poise, patience, and skills to be successful in his career. You can’t take someone for granted who has hit “rock-bottom” in their personal career; you just can’t! Adversity challenges people, especially athletes. If they have character, they will respond. Based on what I have seen from Alex, and everything he has been through (injuries, three coaches, four offensive coordinators; Jimmy Raye is now his fifth), I see nothing but success from this forgotten star.

I am not going to predict a Hall of Fame resurrection, but I will predict a successful career, un- like Ryan Leaf.