Alex Smith: Biggest Bust in NFL History? A Look at the SF 49ers Worst Pick Ever

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Alex Smith: Biggest Bust in NFL History? A Look at the SF 49ers Worst Pick Ever
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
Despite rumors to the contrary, Alex Smith has been the biggest bust in NFL history

For 49ers fans, the Alex Smith era has been an unmitigated disaster. Smith has been the NFL version of the cat who came back. He just won't stay away. He's like Mac's dog Poppins on Always Sunny In Philadelphia. No matter how many times you think he's dead, he improbably returns to life. He's a football zombie who can't be killed, but instead of stumbling around searching for delicious brains, Smith searches for the sweet, sweet stench of losing streaks and incompletions. Still, Smith hasn't been the team's only problem since he was drafted in 2005. Far from it.

 

The team has lacked a consistent pass rush. The offensive line has been populated by injury replacements and draft busts. The secondary has consistently struggled to shutdown even the most mediocre of Wide Receivers. But Alex Smith has been the constant. The San Francisco 49ers have 99 problems. But Alex Smith is most of them.

 

Smith's performances through the years have had pundits and fans alike labeling him a bust for nearly his entire career. But I will take this a step further. I say he's the biggest bust of all time. Ryan Leaf, Akili Smith, and Jamarcus Russell may have technically been worse football players, but none of them crippled their franchises for as long as Smith has. Alex Smith has been so terrible, for so long, that in most cities he would have been run out of town faster than Snooki at a Mensa meeting. Yet has managed to stay at the helm of the 49ers through bad times and worse times, through lows and lowers. It is his consistency that makes him the biggest bust of all time. He consistently alternates between gawd-awful and just-barely-good-enough. In the same game he can show you nothing, and the potential for something. For fans, he is the most frustrating man in the world.

 

Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
Who would have thought this scrawny kid would someday be better than the great Alex Smith?

Full disclosure: in the days leading up to the 2005 NFL draft, when it was clear that the 49ers, holders of the league's number one overall pick, were deciding between Aaron Rodgers and Alex Smith, I was an Alex Smith believer. I heard his college coach, Urban Meyer rave about Smith's intangibles, and his almost abnormally high football IQ. I watched Smith play at the University of Utah, and focused not on his undeveloped mechanics or the "gimmicky" option offense he ran, but on his playmaking abilities. Sure he may not have had a crazy laser rocket arm (registered trademark of the Manning family), but he did possess many of the qualities you look for in a franchise QB. Poise under pressure. Leadership. Intelligence. And just as importantly, he passed the eye test. He looked like a future leader of men in a football uniform.

 

I looked at Aaron Rodgers and I saw a scrawny kid who played on a moderately successful college team. In comparison, Smith seemed like a more physically mature, battle tested player who would be primed for success at the next level. Obviously I was wrong.

 

I heard coach Meyer and scouts alike agree that it would take Smith a year or two to develop, but once he did he would be great. Obviously they were they wrong. 

 

But coming off years of Tim Rattay, Ken Dorsey and the like, I was willing to wait it out, and let Smith develop the way the bengals had developed Carson Palmer. The old Carson Palmer. The good Carson Palmer. Not the currently mediocre Carson Palmer who, ironically, may or may not be starting for the 49ers this year.

 

With the 49ers looking like they were a minimum of three seasons away from a record above .500 anyways, I was excited at the prospect of watching the slow, patient, measured development of one of the league's most promising prospects. I drank the Smith Kool-Aid.

Bob Levey/Getty Images
You know you've been a failure as a #1 pick when this man consistently beats you out for a starter spot

 

Unfortunately, so did the 49ers powers-that-be. They drank so much of the Kool-Aid that they threw up in the living room, leaving a giant red stain that would follow the franchise for the next six seasons. And then they drank some more. They drank so much that they developed a Kool-Aid addiction. Somewhere right now, Jed York is staring at a glass of the Kool-Aid like a recovering alcoholic, knowing he shouldn't drink it, but unable to tear himself away from it.

 

They were so convinced that Smith was the man to lead the rebuilding franchise back to the promised land that instead of having Smith sit, and learn how to play at the NFL level, new Head Coach Mike Nolan started him in nine games in 2005. The results were underwhelming. And not like a my-child's-picture-of-me-looks-nothing-like-a-human-man type of underwhelming. Like a LOST season 6 type of underwhelming. An oh-my-God-we've-made-a-huge-mistake type of underwhelming.

 

And like LOST's final season, Smith has disappointed in almost every conceivable way. But high expectations and heavy investment from a fan base can do crazy things. People have made excuses for Smith just as they have for LOST. He's played for six different Offensive Coordinators. He's been injured off and on his entire career. His head coaches in the NFL have been, let's put it mildly, not as good as advertised - Mike Singletary comedic value aside .

 

But the NFL is about results. And Smith hasn't produced them, only more questions and doubt. Ultimately I don't care that all the members of Oceanic Flight 815 were in some sort of weird purgatory waiting for one another, just as I no longer care what the reasons for Smith's failures have been. I just want to know what happened to Walt's special powers. I want results and answers. 49ers fans don't care at this point that Smith has shown flashes of competence. We want to know who he is, once and for all. We want to get out of the purgatory that Smith has stuck us in.

 

Alex Smith has had more chances than anyone else in football, and has squandered all of them. He has been given more opportunities to succeed than Jamarcus Russell and Pac man Jones combined. Yet he has consistently failed. Either because of a lack of QB options, or simply because of some strange, misplaced allegiance to Smith, the 49ers front office has consistently turned to their former number one overall pick to resurrect his career, and with it the hopes of once-great franchise. And year after year, 49ers fans have tempered their already-low expectations even further, only to be disappointed again and again.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images
He didn't help

 

I can feel it, this is the year he breaks through and leads us to the playoffs

 

Maybe he will turn into a league-average QB this year

 

Maybe Michael Crabtree will help

 

Alright, we're in the worst division in the NFL in the last 10 years. All he has to do is play better than Chaz Whitehurst and Derek Anderson. That shouldn't be a problem, right? Right?

 

Well, at least he didn't torture any dogs that we know of

 

Now I know what you're saying. You're saying that it cannot be possible that I am unfavorably comparing any player to Jamarcus Russell, let alone a man who, despite his trials and tribulations, remains a potential NFL starter at the beginning of the 2011-12 season. If there is a 2011-12 season. To which I only have one response; it is better to burn out than to fade away. The fact that Smith has not been officially eliminated from starting for San Francisco in the upcoming season is even more of an indictment on how badly he has hurt (and continues to hurt) this team.

 

I would take Jamarcus Russell's spectacular flameout over Alex Smith's just-barely-productive-enough-to-keep-his-job performances any day. Jamarcus Russell may have been one of the worst draft picks of all time. But at the end of the day, he was so bad that the Raiders were able to cut ties with him after only three years, and move on with their lives. They have been able to rebuild. 

 

Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

Smith has been terrible, but at the same time just promising enough to stick around, and stick around, and stick around. He has left the 49ers in a state of arrested development, unable to move forward. He has been so frustratingly mediocre that the franchise cannot move on from it.

 

He has banished the fans to our own football purgatory, where neither time nor chances blown nor expectations unmet matter. We are Jack Shephard, wandering around the world confused and alone, knowing that we are waiting on something to release us from our perdition of subpar football, but unsure what that is. We've desperately turned to J.T. O'Sullivan and Troy Smith for help. But they can't help us. They can't even help themselves.

 

Still don't believe me? Fine. Let's first break down Smith's career year by year. In this light, it becomes apparent that Smith has, at all times, been one of the worst starting QB's in the league both statistically and in terms of on-field results

 

Alex Smith

2005:

7 GS, 2-5, 1 TD, 11 INT, 50.9 Cmp%. Rookie year, new head coach, dramatically different system than his college team. A subpar performance was not totally unexpected, as most fans were aware of Smith's longer-than-usual projected development. However, he was the number one pick in the draft, and by anyone's standards, Smith stuck up the joint. Unfortunately, because he was the new face of the franchise, there was no real chance he wouldn't be the starter in 2006. We'll call this one half a strike against him. Total strikes: 5.

 

2006:

Harry How/Getty Images
A real meeting of the minds

16 GS, 7-9, 16 TD, 16 INT, 58.1 Cmp%. Second year under Mike Nolan, and first year under new OC Norv Turner. Only decent when compared to the previous year's effort. Smith had Frank Gore's nearly 1700 yards backing him up, along with a solid effort from Antonio Bryant, and the athletic gifts of rookie Vernon Davis. At the time, Smith was given the benefit of the doubt and given credit for an improved 9ers squad. Looking back, this was the apex of his career, and the prototypical Alex Smith season. Benefit of doubt revoked. Total strikes: 1.5.

 

2007:

7 GS, 2-5, 2 TD, 4 INT, 48.7 Cmp%. Norv leaves to coach the Chargers, leaving Smith with his third OC in three years. The amateur hour that was Mike Nolan's tenure as head coach was on full display. Smith injured his shoulder early in the season, sat out a few games, bickered with his head coach publicly about the severity of his injury, came back early, argued with his coach some more about the cause of his almost comically awful play, and was placed on IR to end the season. He gets some credit for playing through pain, but all that needs to be said about the 2007 is that Smith completed less than 50% of his passes, and posted a passer rating that was better than only one QB in the league; Kellen Clemens. At his point, Smith was arguably the worst starting QB in football. Total strikes: 2.5.

 

2008:

Smith was placed on IR in September with a broken bone in his shoulder. He did play in the preseason, but was unable to best either Shaun Hill or J.T. O'Sullivan for the starting job, and was third on the depth chart when the season began. Enough said. Total strikes: 3.5.

 

2009:

11 GS, 5-5, 18 TD, 12 INT, 60.5 Cmp%. Nolan out, former interim coach Mike Singletary in. Smith was again unable to prove that he is better than Shaun Hill, and started the season on the bench. He took the reigns in week 7, and played well enough to earn the starter's job. Arguably, this was his most significant season. He showed signs of life and posted the best numbers of his career. However, hindsight being 20/20, I'm giving Smith an extra strike for this season. Not only did his efforts not produce any truly relevant results (aside from a career year for Vernon Davis), but he was good enough to tantalize the 49ers front office, and encourage them to bring him back in 2010, thereby setting the franchise back yet another year. Total strikes: 5.5.

Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
Terrible, but still not worse than Alex Smith

 

2010:

11 GS, 3-8, 14 TD, 10 INT, 59.6 Cmp%. Yet another offensive coordinator after Jimmy Raye was mercifully fired (although he might have just wandered out of the old folks home where he lived, no one is sure). This was possibly Smith's most frustrating season for fans. He started the season first on the depth chart, and was his normal, craptastic self. In week 7 (with only one win to his name on the season) he suffered yet another injury, and was replaced by Troy Smith, who was moderately less terrible. However 49ers fans, desperate for a change of scenery at QB, looked at Troy Smith's minimal skill set and were infatuated. We would have been infatuated with anyone, really. After a few uneven performances, however, Alex's brother from another mother was benched for the longtime bay area whipping boy on whom this article is based. He was, not surprisingly, terrible. Smith was unable to lead the team to the top of the NFL's worst division, and best either the Seahawks or the Rams, both of whom finished the season under .500. Two more chances for Alex Smith, two more blown opportunities. Total strikes: 7.5

 

Clearly, his track record is terrible. The man has had a minimum of seven chances in his career, and has managed to blow all of them. He has consistently been unable to beat out even the most pedestrian of competition for the starter's job. Yet there he is, every preseason, wearing the red and gold, ready to throw 15 yard wobblers that are just an inch too high or too low, ready to throw key touchdowns when they don't matter, and key interceptions when they do. It boggles the mind.

 

Assuming that Alex Smith is on the roster and competing for a starting job in 2011 (and at this point, why would you doubt that he will be?), it will be seven seasons of this nonsense. Seven seasons of wasted football and irrelevance for one of the NFL's signature franchises. Now that, in its own sick way, is impressive.

 

But how impressive? How could he possibly be the biggest draft bust of all time? Let's take a look…

Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images
There are very few men who could make Troy Smith seem like an excellent option at QB. Alex Smith is one of those men.

 

Jamarcus Russell:  Years played: 3 (31 games), Record: 7-18, 52.1 Cmp%, 18 TD, 23 INT

 

Akili Smith: Years played: 4 (22 games), Record: 3-14, 46.6 Cmp%, 5 TD, 13 INT

 

Ryan Leaf: Years played: 3 (25 games), Record: 4-17, 48.4 Cmp%, 14 TD, 36 INT

 

Alex Smith: Years played: 6 (50 games), Record: 19-31, 57.1 Cmp%, 51 TD, 53 INT

 

As you can see, Smith has been statistically better than three of the biggest busts in NFL history. But not by much. He has completed just five percent more of his passes than Jamarcus Russell. His TD/INT ratio is comparable to Russell as well. In all, the comparison between Alex Smith and Jamarcus or Ryan Leaf is not as far-fetched as it might sound. He's at least in the conversation. And neither of these players killed their franchises for years the way Smith has. Jamarcus was cut after three years, as was Ryan Leaf. Akili Smith made it four years, but he was often injured, and played in fewer games than his contemporaries.

 

Smith has not only been just as bad as anyone, but his has been the stench that will not go away. He is the valet's B.O. left in Jerry Seinfeld's car, lingering for the last six years, and threatening to linger even today. At some point, it is simply time to get a new car. With Smith, it's not the touchdowns or interceptions that has killed his franchise. It's his games played.

 

While Ryan Leaf was shirtless, screaming at reporters and making it easy for the Chargers to cut him, and Jamarcus was stumbling through the NFL in a sizzurp-induced fog, Smith has continued to play. He isn't a loose cannon, and his work ethic has never been questioned. These factors have helped him stay in San Francisco through two contracts, destroying any hope the 49ers had for relevance along the way. Just because he hasn't been a loud, obnoxious knucklehead doesn't mean that he hasn't hurt his franchise similarly.

 

If Leaf or Russell's careers were murky puddles of suck, Smith's has been a bottomless pool of failure. And, most frustratingly, there is no end in sight. For a normal, well-run franchise, all the signs were there that the 2010 season would be Smith's last with the team. The 49ers started the year the heavy favorite to win the NFC West. Smith lost 6 of the team's first 7 games before being replaced by career backup Troy Smith, the Filet Mignon to Alex's Alpo. 49ers fans were so desperate for decent QB that they talked themselves into Troy Smith as a legitimate option almost immediately. The injury that shelved Alex, it seemed, would also end his career in SF. Wrong again.

 

Singletary brought Smith back as starter to finish the season and now, with a lockout in full effect, and team transactions on an indefinite hold, Smith is horrifyingly first on the depth chart for a 2011 season, should it actually occur. There have been rumors of trades for Carson Palmer or Kevin Kolb, or drafting a Cam Newton, Ryan Mallett or Blaine Gabbert. It speaks to the volume of Smith's wear on San Francisco's fan base that any of these options (or, really, any other option you can think of - Kyle Orton, anyone?) would be celebrated like the 2010 Giants championship parade.

 

Over the years, Smith's brand of failure has revealed itself to be a very special breed. His is a combination of lack of arm strength, poor decision making, and a physical and mental inability to perform. But he also possesses perseverance, guts, likeabillity, and just barely enough talent to complete the package. This is what makes Alex Smith special, and separates him from other busts, has-beens, and never-were's. 

 

Really, this is who Alex Smith has always been. He has always had the potential to be the biggest bust in NFL history. But he's had help to get there. The 49ers organization, by coddling him, believing in him, and supporting him, has made him into what we see today: a franchise killer. I never said it was totally his fault. This has been a franchise-wide failure extending back since he was drafted. But the fact remains that, judging by total damage done to a franchise, there has never been anyone worse than Alex Smith.

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