After the 49ers were eliminated from postseason play late last year against the Chargers, combined with an underwhelming performance by Alex Smith and the firing of Mike Singletary, the consensus among 49er fans—one would think the team as well—was that the franchise would be best to move forward with a new coach and a new quarterback.
In January, when new San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh gave free-agent-to-be Alex Smith an unwavering vote of confidence—to the contradiction of GM Trent Baalke, who in February said their starting QB was not on their roster—it created a schism between pro-Smith and anti-Smith 49er fans.
David White of the San Francisco Chronicle reiterated the palpable consensus amongst 49er fans about Smith, while also himself remaining curious regarding the franchise's sudden 180-degree turn on Smith.
"Keeping Smith offers minimal advantage, because he is as unfamiliar with Harbaugh's new playbook as any outsider. But at least Smith knows he is still wanted by the 49ers, even if their fan base appears ready to move on."
The fact that Jim Harbaugh, a former quarterback who was widely lauded as a great hire, believed in Smith, a player who in six years has failed to live up to not just the expectations of being a No. 1 overall draft pick but also of being a consistently serviceable starting QB in this league, created a lot of confusion that has, for the seventh year now, forced us to contemplate the question: Is starting Alex Smith the right move?
Whether Alex Smith has been or will be good is a separate question from whether it was a "good" move to bring him back on a one-year, $5 million contract. However, I will address both.
Whereas in January you could find nobody willing to back the idea of re-signing Alex (or Alexis, as I began to call him), support for him from Harbaugh has changed the minds of some.
How one feels about Smith now largely depends on how much he finds Smith responsible for the team's lack of success generally, the offense's lack of success in particular and his own statistical mediocrity (50 GS, 57 percent comp., 51/53 TD/INT, 72 QB rating).
It also depends on how sympathetic he is to Smith in light of the sheer incompetence and instability he was exposed to from the moment he was drafted in 2005 by a dysfunctional franchise in disarray.
Six years and six offensive coordinators, one mediocre coach (Mike Nolan) and one flagrantly incompetent coach (Mike Singletary), neither of which knew a lick about offense, let alone how to teach and coach a QB.
Poor talent evaluators in the front office, an abrasive, unstable and incompetent ownership.
Though not confirmed, a person with a personal friendship with Julian Peterson said that Peterson would have stayed and signed with the 49ers had their not been so much uncertainty in the front office and ownership.
Stability, thus direction, of a franchise matters in building—and keeping—a good team.
It is perfectly reasonable to conclude that, had Alex Smith possessed the attributes necessary to be a franchise QB, he would have showed more glimpses of it than he has during his rocky six-year tenure with the club, in spite of the obvious lack of leadership and competent coaching above him.
It is also reasonable to conclude that, particularly last year, the offense was so predictable, so mundane and immune to adjustments, that it often left Smith out to dry.
The must-win, Sunday night game against the Chargers in Week 16 was an example of this.
Down early, in predictable passing downs against a relentless pass rush, the offense can think of nothing other than sending receivers on long, developing routes where the receiver doesn't even turn back for 15 yards, against a secondary waiting down the field, taking away everything deep as well as the flats, leaving Smith out to dry.
Anecdotal evidence this is indeed, but it is a microcosm of the mind-numbing stupidity behind their offense, which of course, starts at the top because somebody had to hire these guys.
And whereas in MLB and the NBA, leagues in which the manager and coaches have minimal effects on player performance and team outcomes, a competent football coach can do both.
And though if one thought Smith was not good because he is intrinsically incapable of performing consistently well, than it would not make any sense to jump on board because of Harbaugh.
Harbaugh is not just a former quarterback but has proven to have a keen eye for quarterbacks.
According to the Sacramento Bee's Matt Borrows:
While an assistant with the Raiders in 2002, Harbaugh was asked to evaluate the quarterbacks in the draft class. He not only broke from conventional thinking that year, he turned out to be very accurate, according to a source with knowledge of the report.
Harbaugh, for instance, gave Tony Romo—he went undrafted that year—and David Garrard good grades, but had low grades for Joey Harrington, the third overall pick, and Carr, who was picked first overall. Harbaugh assessed Carr as a sixth-round pick.
Oh, and at Stanford he went hard in recruiting after Andrew Luck, a player not sought after by the better programs in the country despite being a 4-star prospect by most recruiting services.
Harbaugh has never wavered in his confidence in Smith, and though it could be argued that his support for Smith was more symbolic in light of the reality that Smith was and is, outside of overpaying for Kevin Kolb, their best and only option at QB for this upcoming season.
Last Friday on Chronicle Live, Ray Ratto of CSN Bay Area offered a simple but enlightened perspective on the Smith situation that also touched on Harbaugh's pragmatism in emphatically publicizing his intention to retain Smith before the lockout.
[Smith's teammates] have also seen the chaos that has been that organization the last eight years, and at least understand, intellectually, that they brought in Alex Smith—whether he is a good quarterback or not—knowing that he has never been given a reasonable opportunity to succeed because of the madness above him.
And players are not stupid and they understand that. And that is why they are still pretty much in his corner.
[Smith] probably would like to be somewhere else this year, but there wasn't that opportunity. And if Harbaugh had a quarterback he liked better, he would have brought him in.
This is sort of a marriage of convenience for both of them. But I think the players at least recognize that, whatever Alex Smith's shortcomings, they were exacerbated by the nightmare in the front office.
We don't know how sincere Harbaugh was in his public confidence for Smith (though my hunch is that he was sincere). Maybe Harbaugh, knowing the market for QBs along with the pending lockout, knew Smith was his best option and thus sought to pump Smith up in hopes of getting the most out him for this one and final year.
Would you rather have Matt Hasselbeck? I wouldn't. The petulant child Vince Young? Would you rather pin your hopes to Colin Kaepernick with David Carr backing him up?
I'm of the mind that Smith is not as bad as he has played and looked at his worst moments with the Niners, though will never be a franchise quarterback or perennial starter. But as regards to his "ceiling," it's really difficult for anyone outside the NFL to say.
Smith's issues tend to be decision making in the pocket (which may have to do with confidence, either in himself, the offense, or both) and accuracy down the field. Smith appears to be reluctant to wait through his progressions and attempt to find people down the field.
He may be overly apprehensive about making tough throws in the event they get picked due to his history, and he isn't particularly effective throwing outside of the pocket.
Ironically, when the 49ers were evaluating Smith and Aaron Rodgers prior to the 2005 draft, they felt Smith set himself apart from Rodgers due to his mobility and ability to throw the football well when rolling outside the pocket, although, as it has been clear for quite some time, Rodgers is far superior than Smith at both throwing in and outside the pocket. Ouch.
Without being privy to study sessions of game film, it is hard to unequivocally make conclusions as to literally how (in)effective Smith has performed relative to his underwhelming results.
Plays and drives fail for a multitude of reasons, and without watching the game in Madden-view and in slow motion where one can see receiver routes develop and thereby determine whether the QB is adequately getting the ball out in time and making good decisions as to where the ball should be thrown, fans are left in the dark without these important observations that are key to evaluating quarterbacks.
And unless you wanted to give up a No. 1 and No. 3 draft pick for Kevin Kolb (I wouldn't have blamed them for doing so) or think Matt Hasselbeck is an upgrade because you didn't see him single-handedly throw the the game away against the 49ers in December like he was shaving points, it is hard to argue that not bringing Smith back for one more shot with a legitimate offensive mind is a bad idea.
Entering the season with an unpolished and raw rookie QB competing with retread David Carr was clearly NOT an option the 49ers considered. Nor should they have.
I was as ready to part ways with Smith when the season ended and it may very well be a reality that he is simply not very good, so much so that no amount of coaching or scheming can change that. But considering the market for QBs, it was both a safe and pragmatic move to bring him back.
Fans will point to his numbers and wins to gauge how he performs this year, but as always, the truth lies a bit deeper than that.
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