49ers Quarterback Alex Smith's Difficult Journey to the Top of the NFL
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Alex Smith is a good quarterback who could have been great by now. He could still be great. That’s right. I said it. The problem with Alex Smith is he was surrounded by mediocrity and inconsistency, and I don’t know of any field general that could prosper under those conditions.
The front office has been in chaos under the York Family, who are a far cry from Eddie DeBartolo ever was as far as ownership. Smith's played under three different head coaches (four if you count the one-game interim coaching of Jim Tomsula) and seven different offensive coordinators, each with different offenses for him to learn. Not to mention a rag-tag O-line that didn't protect him and targets that couldn't help him move forward.
Yet, we still saw Smith as the scapegoat for the Niners losses. I’m still amazed that he opted to stay this year.
I am glad Alex is finally feeling comfortable, and that he’s slowly becoming the quarterback the Niners thought he was. Remember, he was the first overall pick in 2005, and now he is finally changing the minds of those people who thought he was a bust.
Here’s a look at why we all thought Alex was not the player we envisioned him to be, and how he’s finally becoming the quarterback we want.
The Dynasty Before Him
Steve Young and Jerry Rice
When Eddie De Bartolo was the owner and Bill Walsh was the coach of the franchise, there was a sense of pride in the organization. There was an air of, "That's right, we're the 49ers. This is how we roll."
It was a straight-up professional organization, and winning football games was their business.
You saw it when they walked out onto the field on game day. The uniforms were bright white and dark crimson with nary a blemish, worn neat and orderly. The helmets were polished to a high sheen. The players took the field and stood up straighter, prouder, but not boastful, no swagger, no bravado, just professional.
Winning was something that just happened, and it happened because those men that went to battle relied on each other, understood their strengths and weaknesses and took advantage of them for the team.
In 1999 and 2000, the beloved owner of the franchise went through legal troubles and eventually forfeited his ownership to his brother-in-law John York and sister Denise DeBartolo-York.
This turn in ownership also became the turn in the atmosphere and environment with the team. It subsequently ended the dynasty by virtue of miscues in hiring staff and players that were never quite the mold of those that made the team great.
Gone was the sense of pride and history and tradition in the organization. Everything just imploded, all to the dismay of all the 49ers fans. The club was infected with attitude and self-centeredness that had been pervasive throughout the league. Players celebrated every tackle and every minimal gain in yardage, instead of the old-school mentality of "Yup, that's how a pro does it. Let's move on so I can do it again."
Jerry Rice epitomized that old-school attitude. "The Hill" Workout by Jerry Rice wasn't just a challenge, it was part of his job. While his uniform was just like the rest of the team, his always seemed to be neater and more polished, almost prideful. When he ran his routs, it was precise and surgical, and when he was done, seldom did he celebrate.
It was almost always a hurry back to the huddle or to the sideline because that's just how he handled his business. I think that's why he was and still is considered the best. Not just because of what he did on the field, but how he prepared himself off the field.
Former 49er head coach Dennis Erickson
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
Bill Walsh is forever the 49ers head coach. I think he always will be. The innovator of the West Coast Offense certainly put his mark on the NFL.
His touch on the 49ers organization can still be felt at Candlestick Park and 4949 Centennial Blvd., and all around the San Francisco Bay Area decades after he left the organization and years after his passing.
When his tenure passed and his legacy moved forward through George Seifert and Steve Mariucci, that aura of professionalism and pride still rang on the field and through the bleachers. It wasn't just a scheme or method of coaching. It was an attitude and a lifestyle for the 49ers.
When Dennis Erickson came in as the new coach, he changed the strategy to a more defensive mindset and stepped away from the West Coast Offense. This is where I believe the downfall started. The Niners dug itself a hole and it has taken this long to dig ourselves out.
Please understand, this isn't to say that Dennis Erickson isn't a good coach. He is! He just wasn't right for the 49ers.
When a team leaves what it does best and takes a different direction, it doesn’t always work out for the best, thus leading to the change toward Mike Nolan.
Like Erickson, I'm not saying Nolan, or Mike Singletary for that matter, aren't good coaches, they too are just not the right coach for the 49ers.
While a strong defense is tantamount to any success on the field, the dynasty grew because of an even stronger offensive scheme based on Walsh's West Coast system. That system is the 49ers. It's the identity not just of the team, but of the organization. Once we lost step with it, the whole thing collapsed.
Alex Smith: First Pick Overall
Alex Smith - First Overall Pick
Chris Trotman/Getty Images
Smith came on board with the 49ers alongside Nolan in 2005. This was a great time for the organization as we had the makings of a great quarterback and a throwback coach that had a lot of history with the team.
Alex was chosen over Aaron Rodgers (who the Niners also took a look at) because of his smarts. He was a gifted quarterback and could probably adapt quickly to the pro game and the new schemes that Nolan had envisioned for the team.
The 49er faithful were in a frenzy at the new beginning with Smith and Nolan. It all fizzled that first season as injury and adapting to a quicker style of game play dragged down Smith to an abysmal 50.9 percent completion rating under his first of many offensive coordinators.
Nolan was a throwback kind of coach with an intense personality. While the thought process was that Alex could handle Nolan's coaching style, it just didn't work, especially when Smith got injured. The two battled as to just how injured Smith's shoulder was. Doctors would conclude that it was, in fact, still injured and required surgery.
During this time period, the Niners began to acquire the elements leading to their move from the dregs of the league. With studs tight end Vernon Davis and linebacker Patrick Willis coming on board as well as Frank Gore stepping up to become an elite running back, change was happening, but all the pieces still weren't there.
Nolan was eventually fired, and the Niners moved Hall of Famer and defensive coordinator Mike Singletary into the head coaching position. Even then, Alex Smith was still considered the cause of the 49ers decline.
The Offensive Coordinator Carousel and the Quarterback Controversies
Mike Martz, former 49er Offensive Coordinator
Doug Benc/Getty Images
Under the coaching of Nolan, Smith and the other 49ers quarterbacks (Shaun Hill, J.T. O'Sullivan, Trent Dilfer) would go through four offensive coordinators, each with different schemes for them to learn.
The inconsistency led to poor play, not only of the quarterbacks, but also of the entire offense.
As part of the 49ers fan base, when you go from watching precision and careful execution of the West Coast Offense that, for years, provided win after win for the team, to one offensive scheme, then to another, the flavor of what the 49ers are loses its value.
We are a team of a strong defense paired with the well-oiled machine of the West Coast Offense in which receivers pick up massive yards after the catch. We have a good backfield and a good special teams. That is the 49ers, and during this era, we lost that identity.
#1 - Mike McCarthy
#2 - Norv Turner
#3 - Jim Hostler
#4 - Mike Martz
During the tenure under these men, Alex has had to fight tooth and nail to battle injury and keep his starting spot, and he has been and remains a leader in the organization. It's a testament to the kind of man, let alone player, he is.
When he was needed to be the backup, he was. When it was time for him to step up again and again, he was there, even at the expense of his body.
More pieces to the comeback of the 49ers started to happen. As Mike Nolan left and was replaced by Mike Singletary, it looked like a move in the right direction. While he may not have been the right coach for the 49ers, what he did was motivate certain players the way they needed to be motivated.
As Davis was brought into the organization, he had a tremendous upside. He was big, athletic, with great hands and a good blocker, but he was raw.
Davis got benched and subsequently sent to the locker room by Singletary in the middle of the Seahawks game in 2008 for a penalty after slapping an opposing player. The talk he got from Singletary about his potential turned the TE into a leader in the organization.
His preparation, discipline, training as well as his leadership and attitude turned around and became almost Jerry Rice-esque.
Along with Davis' turn, Willis' acquisition proved pivotal as he developed into a leader on the defensive side of the ball. With Willis' stepping up under Singletary's tutelage, the defense became the beast the Niners fanbase was calling for.
As the 2010 season came, the 49ers finally chose to protect their quarterback and brought in 2 rookie beasts of offensive linemen in Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis.
Under Singletary, however, Smith had to learn two new schemes under two new offensive coordinators:
#5 Jimmy Raye II
#6 Mike Johnson
These moves still kept Smith from proving and meeting his potential.
Who Is the Real Bust?
The Offensive Line 2008
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
Since 2005, Smith had been surrounded by players that couldn't support him. They weren't bad players, but they weren't doing Alex any favors either.
Brandon Lloyd was projected to be a great wide receiver for the 49ers. He did what he could, but with the varying schemes they'd been given as an offense, he ended up not working out for the team. He's apparently doing well now for the Broncos.
Arnaz Battle proved a decent wide out for the team, but much like Lloyd, he did what he could with what the offense offered. He's now a leader on special teams with the Steelers.
The offensive line from 2005-2010 had no real standouts and did relatively nothing to protect the quarterback or dig holes for Frank Gore to bore through.
Isaac Bruce, who came in in 2008, played decently. He was already on his last legs from his days as a star receiver for the Rams when the Niners acquired him.
Rebuilding the Dynasty
Smith and new Head Coach Jim Harbaugh
Rich Schultz/Getty Images
Before the 2011 season began, there was a lot of speculation as to what would come for the 49ers. Smith had finished his contract, the team needed a new head coach and the fans, who had been clamoring for a winning season since 2002, were looking for a change.
Jed York and newly promoted GM Trent Baalke set out to find a new head coach. Everyone in the league had their eyes set on Stanford’s Jim Harbaugh, and it was the team's number one priority to get him.
They succeeded in landing the highly effective college head coach two days after Baalke’s signing as GM. Harbaugh’s first mission was to find a QB.
He offered Smith the opportunity to return, although things were still up in the air as the lockout loomed. During this time, Smith organized player workouts. As the lockout ended, Smith signed on for one year.
This drew a lot of ire from the fans, but neither Harbaugh nor Smith were deterred. Harbaugh is a quarterbacks guru, and he had a willing and able quarterback in Smith. It was up to them to prove Smith's capability. They held their cards tightly over the abbreviated preseason.
Under the tutelage of Harbaugh, considered by many to be a quarterbacks-minded coach, the Niners reinstituted the West Coast Offense, with the Harbaugh twist.
With a former pro QB in his ear, Smith is developing his confidence. The Niners have started the first portion of this season with a 4-1 record.
Part of the Harbaugh Era is this new attitude and culture the new coach has brought into the team. In the week between the Bengals and the Eagles games, the team spent the week practicing in Youngstown, Ohio. Harbaugh called the trip Camp II.
It gave the team the chance to get to know each other better, with the coach telling the players to introduce themselves to two players they did not know well. This team cultivation has been extremely fruitful for this team on the brink.
The new outlook and coaching style, the team attitude of knowing your role and being able to rely on your teammates, the growing confidence of the ever dumped upon quarterback in Smith had made the Niners into the team worth watching again.
Fans that once gave up on Alex Smith have now become his cheerleader, seemingly willing their quarterback to succeed. And his development into that first round first pick overall we so desired back in 2005 is now, finally, coming to fruition...maybe not as fast as we would have wanted it to happen, but it looks like it's finally happening.
After the amazing victory over a great team in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Smith is currently first in interceptions allowed (1). His QB rating is at 104.1, third behind Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady. That is right where a first overall pick should be.
I’ll be the first to admit that I have been quite disappointed by Smith, but I was never one to give up on him. Maybe I like the underdog. Maybe I reserved judgement on him because football is a team sport and while the QB is the leader of the team, a team is only as good as the sum of all of it's parts, players, coaching and front office included. Maybe it's because I'm just a die-hard 49er fan.
Whatever it is, I'm happy for the turn around in the team and the QB.
The effect, from the front office on down to the 53rd man on the roster has been astounding.
I’m glad he’s finally reaching his potential this year and hope that if this season ends the way I think it will, the Niners reward him with a contract worthy of all of his sacrifice and contribution.
In the '80s we had Eddie DeBartolo, Bill Walsh and Joe Montana. In the 2010's could the prospects of Jed York, Jim Harbaugh and Alex Smith be the right recipe for Dynasty II?
Only time will tell. But, I certainly hope we're headed somewhere in that direction.