49ers, Opinion

Alex Smith, the unlucky 49er

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So, the inevitable is likely all but official now. Alex Smith will have to trade in his Giants cap for a Royals cap after the 49ers agreed to send their one-time-starter-turned-Kaepernick-jock-holder to the Chiefs, as first reported by Jay Glazer.

The deal can’t become official until March 12, when the league’s new year begins. The Niners receive an attractive haul of draft picks in return. Reports have the Niners receiving the Chiefs’ second-round pick in this year’s draft (34th overall) and a conditional mid-round pick in 2014.

So ends the Alex Smith era with the 49ers. A lot of people will look at it as largely a bust. And that may be true. A former first overall pick who doesn’t start living up to his potential until two years ago, his seventh year in the league sounds more like a “30 for 30″ story than a success story. Meanwhile, the second QB selected in that draft, Aaron Rodgers, is winning Super Bowl and MVP trophies, putting up godly numbers, starring in annoying State Farm commercials and ostensibly having adult relations with Miss America contestants.

But while many people will focus on the lack of wins, numbers and general production from Smith’s time in San Francisco, I try not to. Sure, when I’m going to look back at Alex Smith the 49er, I’m going to think of the missed potential, but I’ll also think of a guy who just had awful luck throughout his time with the Niners. Join me as I discuss:

Pressure of being first-overall pick and Niners QB lineage. This might sound like more of an excuse because every first-overall pick in a draft has to deal with enormous pressure in trying to live up to the hype. But not only did Smith have those expectations to deal with, he simultaneously had to live up to the respected QB pedigree of a franchise with a rich winning tradition. Because of guys like Montana, Young, Tittle, Brodie, hell, maybe even Garcia, every 49ers QB is held to a higher standard. Again, this is probably making excuses, but that’s a lot to ask for a guy who played his college ball in the Mountain West conference and whose NFL apprenticeship situation early on with the 49ers was never favorable. But we’ll get into that… starting now.

Offensive coordinators. Throughout Alex Smith’s tenure, the 49ers had just as much stability with offensive coordinators as Spinal Tap had with drummers. In Smith’s eight seasons, he’s had seven different OCs. (Try to guess them all on Sporcle!) It wasn’t until current OC Greg Roman that Smith has had an offensive coordinator who lasted a full two seasons. Some left to take better jobs (Mike McCarthy, Norv Turner). Others just didn’t work out (oh hi, Mike Martz!). But the revolving door of play callers and offensive schemes did nothing to help a young quarterback looking to develop consistency and confidence.

No QB mentor. When Smith first joined the 49ers in 2005, the incumbent and most experienced QB on the roster was future two-time United Football League champion Tim Rattay (talk about a tough act to follow). It wasn’t until Smith’s third year he finally was paired with a sage veteran QB from whom to learn the ropes in Trent Dilfer, who only stayed with the Niners for a year. After that, Smith never had somebody fill that role until Jim Harbaugh came in, but he obviously wasn’t a teammate. Meantime, over in Green Bay, Rodgers was spending three seasons as the understudy to one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game. Granted, you don’t need a mentor as a teammate to become an exceptional quarterback in this league. Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III didn’t need no stinkin’ mentors. But with the Niners constantly burning through offensive coordinators, and thus offensive systems, it wouldn’t have hurt to have that extra somebody to lean on, learn from, have to help break down the playbook and film and whatever else when it’s needed.

2012 concussion. This, of course, was the injury that sealed Smith’s fate. By now the story is all but part of elementary school history curriculum. Alex Smith, on pace for a historically accurate year, goes down with a concussion in Week 9. Colin Kaepernick takes over. Jim Harbaugh sticks with the “hot hand.” Memes are created. Jim Harbaugh screams at people. The Niners go to the Super Bowl. Jim Harbaugh screams at more people. And that’s that. Just a woefully unfortunate turn of events for Smith. If it wasn’t for the Rams’ Jo Lonn Dunbar, Smith likely keeps his job for the rest of the season and possibly starts in the Super Bowl and then who knows where we are right now. (Michael Crabtree on Dancing with the Stars?)

So, Smith was indefensibly terrible in his first handful of years, but he was also an unenviable victim of circumstance.

He now goes to KC, where he follows in the footsteps of former Niners-QBs-turned-Chiefs Joe Montana, Steve Bono and Elvis Grbac.

It’ll be a drastic change in environment, though. Smith goes from playing on a team that was just in a Super Bowl to a team that won only two games last season. Smith also has the third best win percentage over the last two seasons, behind just Tom Brady and Rodgers. That’s company Smith will likely be departing playing for the Chiefs.

But there is promise in Kansas City. The defense is young and capable. Jamaal Charles is still in the backfield. Dwayne Bowe is a reliable target at receiver who will possibly get the franchise tag. The team owns the No. 1 pick in the draft, which it could use on either Luke Joeckel or Eric Fisher to protect Smith’s blind side. And they still get to the play the Raiders twice a year.

Whether Smith can succeed without Jim Harbaugh is still going to be something to watch but he’s entering a favorable situation under new Chiefs boss Andy Reid. Smith didn’t finally start playing to his potential until Harbaugh came to San Francisco and installed a simplified, West Coast attack. Luckily for Smith, Reid runs the West Coast offense as well. He’s also had the likes of Brett Favre and Donovan McNabb among the quarterbacks who have been under his tutelage as an assistant and head coach.

Things are starting to look up for Alex Smith for once.

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