Alex Smith and the San Francisco 49ers: Why This Dysfunctional Marriage Must End
Alex Smith must be a real enigma to the San Francisco 49ers.
Seemingly since the day he was drafted, the fans have been almost unanimously against him. Many were bewildered with the delusion that Cal quarterback Aaron Rodgers would have been a much better pick, and have always held Smith to an unattainable standard.
With every mounting disappointing season, Smith has seemed to become even less ingratiated to the fan base. Things got so bad in the midst of a tumultuous 2010 season that fans began booing Smith as he took the field, rather than just after his inevitable mistakes.
Now, however, when the 49ers have a real chance for a true fresh start—with a new coach, a revamped offense, and a complement of solid options (see here and here) to replace their former No. 1 overall pick—a growing number of fans are suddenly lobbying for keeping Smith around.
Part of this can likely be attributed to new head coach Jim Harbaugh's recent comments praising Smith's potential as a starter in the NFL. Harbaugh has generated a wealth of good will and optimism since joining the ranks of the red and gold and many fans have begun to put an impressive amount of confidence in his judgment, especially when it comes to offensive personnel matters.
Even so, the sudden and dramatic shift in how Smith is perceived among the 49ers Faithful has been quite interesting to behold. Many who once were calling for his head are now imploring the 49ers to resign the unrestricted free agent QB.
Plenty of rumors have been floating around about why Smith should be retained. While some are based in reality, all can be logically refuted.
Point: Alex Smith Is the Best QB Available
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Many have recently argued that Smith's struggles have been strongly over-exaggerated and that—in a year with a fairly unimpressive class of veteran QB help to be had—he constitutes the best option for the 49ers.
Smith has posted his best numbers of his career despite significant struggles over the last two seasons, finishing each with a passer rating above 80. Smith finished 2010 in impressive fashion and posted better overall numbers than even the much-discussed Donovan McNabb.
Unlike McNabb, Smith is still young enough to provide long-term stability and—as an unrestricted free agent—would not cost the 49ers players or picks to acquire, as would McNabb, Carson Palmer, or Kyle Orton. Given other free agent options like Matt Leinart, Matt Hasselbeck, and Marc Bulger, Smith looks pretty good.
Counter-Point: Alex Smith Is Painfully Inconsistent/There Are Better Options
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It is perfectly true that Smith has been better than ever before over the course of the last two years, but he has also been very inconsistent.
In 2010, Smith posted two performances with a passer rating in triple digits, and four games where his rating eclipsed 90. Anyone care to guess how many games he played where he failed to break 70? You got it: four.
Smith did lead a variety of impressive drives this year, showing some leadership potential along the way—most notably the game-tying touchdown drive in Week 2 against the defending champion New Orleans Saints. But often these glimpses of success came in situations where the game (or the season) was already a lost cause.
McNabb may have struggled in Washington, but the situation was far from ideal, as he spent most of the year at odds with Mike Shanahan. Options like Leinart and Bruce Gradkowski certainly warrant some consideration, and Palmer, Orton, or McNabb will likely prove available at a very reasonable price. A mid-round pick is fair compensation for such a QB option and any of the three would be a big step up.
Point: With The CBA Uncertainty, Alex Smith Is an Even Better Option
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There are three things that could feasibly happen with the NFL's Collective Bargaining Agreement.
1) The sides could reach an accord by the end of the month, and things would proceed normally.
2) The impasse could cost the league the offseason, delaying possible trades and signings and possibly delaying the start of the season.
3) The stalemate could wipe out the entire 2011 schedule, leaving us to pick up the pieces a year from now.
The second option is seen as most likely. In this scenario, the draft would still take place in April, but teams would not be allowed to acquire veterans by trade or signing until the CBA was resolved and they would go the entire offseason without being able to practice as a unit.
Teams would then be forced into action on very short notice, meaning that any new acquisitions—either rookies or veterans—would be at a major disadvantage having had no time to learn their new team's system. Teams who had players at key positions with experience in their current system would be far better off.
Alex Smith has led the 49ers’ offense for parts of five of the last six seasons and has developed a rapport and chemistry with his teammates, especially All-Pro tight end Vernon Davis. He provides the best option to the 49ers in the event the offseason is lost.
Counter-Point: The System Will Change Regardless/Troy Is Better Than Alex
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The 49ers needed a change at head coach. Unfortunately, it came at bad time to try to overhaul the offense. If the CBA does cost the NFL all offseason activities, the 49ers will be at a major disadvantage—trying to implement a new offense without the benefit of mini-camp, organized team activities, or training camp. But that is reality and Jim Harbaugh was not hired to continue with the stubborn offensive strategies of Mike Singletary and Jimmy Raye.
In light of this, Smith's knowledge of the incumbent system means little, as Harbaugh's scheme stands to be a substantial departure from the predictable and ineffective phenomenon that has passed for offense in recent seasons. Familiarity and rapport with personnel will help, but not nearly as much.
Furthermore, Troy Smith has at least some of the same familiarity with the rest of the 49ers offense, having started six of the team's games last season, showing promise and leadership in the process. Troy Smith took over in a very difficult turn of events, and performed admirably, starting off with back-to-back triple digit passer ratings and winning three of his first four games.
While his performance eventually waned and he finally gave way back to Alex as the starter, it is difficult to say how much of the drop off was due to his personal struggles and how much must be blamed on the coaching staff reverting back to their old and uncreative offensive ways. Troy Smith possesses many exciting qualities and showed enough last year to earn him another shot with the 49ers.
Alex Smith has used up all his mulligans.
Point: Jim Harbaugh Is the Key to an Alex Smith Turn-Around
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This argument takes many forms:
Alex Smith's development was hampered by having to play for defensive coaches.
Jim Harbaugh is a wizard at developing QBs.
Smith is perfect for Harbaugh's system.
All of these are based in some reality.
Alex Smith was put in a terrible situation after being drafted first overall in 2005. He was tasked with turning around an awful team with no offensive line, next to no offensive weapons, and a defense that was suspect at best.
The offensive system was highly unstable—as he played under a different offensive coordinator in each and every season. None of the systems were designed with a QB in mind, however, as they all attempted to play a run-based, clock-consuming, low-scoring style of "smash mouth" football.
Harbaugh's system will be much more QB friendly, and the sky-high success of Andrew Luck stands as testament to Harbaugh's rapport with QBs—having played 14 seasons in the NFL at the position himself. There were reasons Smith was taken first overall, perhaps Harbaugh can finally bring them to light.
Counter-Point: A Major Case of Selective Myopia
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There is no denying that Alex Smith has had it rough as a member of the 49ers. Any QB would have struggled in the situation he has faced, but not all his struggles can be fully blamed on outside circumstances.
His offensive coordinators have varied every year—and Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary were far from a QB's best friends—but Smith has not been without offensive mentors. Over the course of his career, he has played under Norv Turner and Mike McCarthy—two men with Super Bowl rings on their fingers—and spent 2008 learning Mike Martz's system as he recovered from an injury.
Harbaugh has promised to employ his own version of the West Coast Offense, a system that traditionally relies on a mobile QB with good size and strength. Smith possesses those qualities, but the WCO also relies on accuracy, efficiency, and consistency from the QB—three departments where Smith is glaringly deficient.
Harbaugh had a respectable career as a QB in the NFL, and his work molding Andrew Luck into one of the hottest college prospects ever was quite impressive, but other pupils did not enjoy such success. Can anyone who is not a Stanford alumnus, college football nut, or Pac 10 fan name the QB who preceded Luck at Stanford?
Chances are probably slim. The reason is that despite a decent career in college, Tavita Pritchard is far from a household name. He went undrafted in 2010 and is currently not on an NFL roster.
Harbaugh could work some magic with Smith, but it would be wise not to hold your breath.
Point: Alex Smith Has Earned Another Chance with the 49ers
Many argue that Alex Smith deserves more respect than he is being given. As chronicled in the previous point, he has faced a near impossible set of circumstances as a 49er.
Despite consistently poor and unstable offensive game plans, several serious injuries, and the adversity of being publicly indicted by both his coaches, Smith has persevered to become an offensive captain. He could have walked away several years back, but chose to take a pay cut to remain in San Francisco and try to work things out.
Smith has never been given a legitimate shot, and now that a favorable situation finally exists, it is only fair to let him see how far he can take the team.
Counter-Point: Life Isn't Always Fair
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Again, there is no argument against the fact that Alex Smith's tenure in San Francisco has been fraught with adversity. He deserves some credit for not only dealing with all the real circumstances he has faced, but not absolutely collapsing under the weight of the impossible expectations that come with being compared to the over-inflated image many have of what Aaron Rodgers could have been (which in many cases is probably better than the real Rodgers).
Still he has had his chances. He was literally given the keys to the franchise in 2010—the 49ers named him offensive captain, gave him every starting rep for the entire offseason, gave him continuity at OC, and even purged the roster of potential threats. While the situation was still far from ideal in terms of the overly conservative game plan and young and suspect offensive line, Smith made his share of contributions to the 49ers’ 0-5 start and eighth-straight non-winning season.
Smith may never have had a situation as favorable as 2011 stands to be, and he has put up with a lot as signal caller for the 49ers, but that alone does not entitle him to return to 49ers’ huddle. He has consistently had his chances, such as they were, and has consistently failed to display the consistency he needs to be successful as a 49er starting QB.
Point: When Alex Smith Succeeds, the Fans Will Forgive and Forget
Perhaps the biggest drawback to bringing Alex Smith back is how it will resurrect the bad memories of six seasons of struggle and disappointment. Right or wrong, Smith has taken the lion share of the blame for the 49ers’ struggles since 2005.
49er fans have been conditioned to distrust him to the point that they boo him preemptively, but with success that could change. Jim Harbaugh has the trust of the fans and if he sees potential in Smith, the fans should go along with it see what happens.
With a better situation and Harbaugh’s tutelage, Smith could very well succeed, leading the 49ers back the playoffs and perhaps to greater success once they get there. He could finally become the player the fans had always hoped he would be back in April of 2005 and all the pain of the last six seasons will simply melt away.
Counter-Point: We May Already Have Passed the Point of No Return
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Success can supplant a lot of bad blood. Fans always questioned Steve Young, saying he was not a worthy successor to Joe Montana, even after he posted other-worldly numbers and won league MVPs. He was only truly accepted after he finally vanquished the hated Dallas Cowboys and delivered the Super Bowl XXIX title to San Francisco. Now some argue he was even better than Montana.
However, that is unlikely to happen with Alex Smith.
It is likely many fans will never forgive him for not being Aaron Rodgers, and now that Rodgers is a Super Bowl winner (and game MVP) the standard that Smith will be compared against is bound to be elevated even further. Winning could alleviate this to some extent, but there will always be the fans who say “Rodgers could have still done better.”
Harbaugh has the trust of the fans, but choosing to bring back Smith could be a major red flag. If he were to succeed, Harbaugh would probably be hailed as a genius. He may even have enough good will to deflect questions over the choice itself at first, but the moment Smith took a sack, overthrew an open receiver, or heaven forbid threw an interception, the boo birds would descend like vultures on a fresh kill and many would begin to question Harbaugh’s judgment.
All of Harbaugh’s caché could be lost in an instant, undermining team and fan confidence and setting progress back by who knows how many seasons. Seems like a very efficient way to erode the enthusiasm surrounding one of the best things to happen to the 49ers’ team image in over a decade.
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As many well know, I have been one of Alex Smith’s biggest supporters as recently as this season (Exhibit A, Exhibit B, Exhibit C). I see the merit in the argument to keep him around and I fully understand why some people think it would be a good option.
On the surface, the argument makes sense, but when you dig deeper you quickly realize that the marriage between the 49ers and Smith is simply too damaged to continue any further. Time and time again, the fans have been told that this is the year that thing will change, and time and time again Smith has been at the center of seriously disappointing outcomes. While it is certainly important to consider all your options fully, and Jim Harbaugh is simply doing his due diligence in this regard, the final verdict on Smith should be imminently clear.
The 49ers have the chance for a truly fresh start and can part ways with their embattled QB in as clean a manner as possible. Now is the time. Bringing Smith back would only add to the distrust and resentment among the fans and could very well taint Harbaugh’s coaching tenure right from the start.
Smith may still possess the ability to become a solid starter in the right situation, but there is almost no way that situation will ever exist in San Francisco. Confidence is critical at the QB position, and it is difficult to develop confidence with a fan base that boos you onto the field. Everyone involved would benefit from a change. The 49ers will be better off without Smith, and he will be better off elsewhere.
The new chapter of 49ers history needs to start with a new QB.
Keep the Faith!