The first time I saw Alex Smith in person, it was something impressive. It was my first time at the 49ers training camp in Santa Clara and there was perhaps never a better time to be a fan in the last decade. As you all may know, in 2005 with the 1st overall pick the 49ers drafted Alex Smith to be the first franchise quarterback since Steve Young decided to become a spokesman for Toyota. While many debate we should have taken Aaron Rodgers for the obvious reasons, at the time he was far from a conclusive pick (The 2005 draft wasn’t really something to write home about, behind Rodgers the best player taken was Roddy White. Guys like Troy Williamson and Pacman Jones were taken in the top-10. Ouch. This parenthesis comment has gone on far too long, I digress.)
That day I sat in the bleachers watching Alex Smith throw perfect spirals to Arnaz Battle (lol) beside Ken Dorsey, Cody Pickett and Tim Rattay (tears). It frankly didn’t matter what happened, because Alex Smith was the MAN that day. (It’s not that I didn’t appreciate the Jeff Garcia era, because I did and he was good. But seeing a man take a running start for a heave down field and seeing it go 30 yards as one of the best receivers of all time had his man didn’t do it for me. Plus I hear Garcia was a really meany. Yeah I read the TO book.) After practice the players strolled by into the locker room and the fans lined up by the short fences to get signatures. Player after player walked by, some taking the time to sign (Jeff Ulbrich was especially nice. Plus I’ve never seen a man fill out a XXL jersey without pads in my life until seeing him. Seriously my head was smaller than his bicep, and I have a HUGE head.) and others avoiding the eye of fans just to shower. But we all knew what who we wanted to see – the golden boy Alex Smith. At last he strolled by smiling like the hot girl at school who knew every guy wanted her. Tens of fans (EPIC numbers) waved their Official 49ers signature pages for him to sign, and I knew that I had no shot to get mine noticed. So I did what any slightly chubby 16 year old would do. I took off my blue and white Adidas Superstars, waved it like a mad man in the sea of red and hoped he would notice. The spirit of Garrison Hearst must have smiled down upon me because Smith saw my shoe, muttered “What’s this?”, smiled, took it, and signed it. Though everyone around me seemed disgusted, I felt like a kid at Christmas. That shoe was a symbol of great things to come, of a legacy about to unfold for a great franchise ready to give their throne to a new king.
I turned on the 49ers-Texans game last weekend just in time to see Brian Cushing level Smith who threw a perfect pass to Dominique Barber for an interception. It’s hard to believe Smith has only been on the team for 5 years (6 including the season he didn’t play); it’s seemed like so much longer. His first year was miserable but to be expected of a sub-par team and a rookie QB learning a new system. As every Panthers fan will be saying in 4 months, “Peyton Manning had a bad rookie season, look how he turned out!” Yea okay buddy. I’ve cursed Alex Smith more times than I care to remember. I’ve seen enough botched passes and 3rd and long dump offs to last me a lifetime. It’s not just the bad passes but the indecisiveness and general ineptitude that leave such a bad taste in the mouth after seeing him play. I’ve rarely been watching a game and been down late and said to myself, “Smith HAS this. He’s not going to let us down.” I’ve rooted for the Niners to use every pick they have to draft a quarterback and just for shits to see what happens and to end this experiment.
But part of me still wonders. I’ve seen the flashes of competency. I’ve seen him use his athleticism like few quarterbacks in the league can. Perhaps the biggest thing that makes me wonder is what if the team had a consistent coach staff? It can’t just be coincidence that some of the best teams and quarterbacks have had few coaching changes – Brady Bellicheck, Manning Dungy, Roethlisberger Tomlin, Rodgers McCarthy, and of course the legendary Russell Kiffin. Though Smith has had primarily two, Nolan Smith and Mike Singeltary (two guys made for defensive coordinator positions and live action Ninja Turtle movies respectively), they’ve also had a new offensive coordinator every year which for a young quarterback coming from a spread offense is a significant roadblock. It’s like going to school but every year you have a new teacher. Wait that’s a bad analogy. Let’s move on.
Unfortunately, the carousel of coaches can’t explain away all of Smith’s problems, and even though it has often felt like Smith hasn’t improved, I’m taking a look at his stats to see any evidence of such. This can often be a complex question to resolve so we’re going to break it down into 3 main components to illustrate intelligence, maturity, and pure talent:
- Does Smith improve as the season progresses? Having a new OC every year makes the initial few games difficult but the sign of a smart quarterback is one who can adapt as the season moves along.
- Has Smith improved between season to season? The maturation of a player into his prime should coincide with improved play regardless of coordinators.
- Has he ever shown poise? “Moxie”? Leadership? Clutchness? Is he even good?
- Just how many licks does it really take to get to the center of a tootsie pop?
Okay the last one won’t be discussed but is equally as important. Below is a table by month of some key statistics by month of Alex Smith’s career, provided by Pro Football Reference.
|Month||GP||W-L (%)||Passer Rating||TD-INT|
The numbers aren’t pretty. With Smith behind the helm the Niners start off slow and though their record improves, it is still awful, below 50%. A percent over 50% would at least indicate a “run” of sorts but nothing is to be found and though the changes in passer rating are minimal, they get only worse as the months progress, a finding corroborated by the TD-INT ratio. At least he’s not Akili Smith:
|Month||GP||W-L (%)||Passer Rating||TD-INT|
Oh. That passer rating is higher than Smith’s ever was. Well, sample size? Okay so while Smith doesn’t seem to improve over the season, he has only played a full season once, his sophomore season and that sort of inconsistent playing time is a factor. By season, Smith has missed 7 (first 7), 0, 9 (last 9), 16, 5 (first 5), and 5 (middle 5) games (both from benching and injury but mostly injury), confounding what the statistics indicate. It still isn’t an excuse for bad play but he was never able to establish a consistent repertoire with his teammates or comfort in the new system implemented each year.
On a macro level, a player is expected to progress between seasons as his football acumen grows. Here are Smith’s stats since he got into the league:
Smith had an awfully bad first year. No way around it. I haven’t seen football that bad since playing center in my Pop Warner league where I lied about my weight. Though it would seem 2006 was still below average, with Norv Turner at the offensive coordinator helm and Smith fresh into his second season, the Niners finished a surprising 7-9 and seemed ready to break through. Smith’s yards per attempt went up by over a yard which indicates maturity and comfort in the quarterback position. With another year under his belt, fans everywhere thought Smith had just started his progression and would soon make that leap into at the very least an above average quarterback. Then came 2007. The Niners won their first two games leading to high expectations for the rest of the season but it was just an aberration sprinkled with luck. The Steelers pummeled the Niners in week 3 with Smith tossing up a stinker and in his first snap of week 4 the Seahawks separated his shoulder. Smith came back for a three game stretch and lost them all before shutting down for the season with shoulder problems. In the offseason still facing shoulder problems, Smith tried rehabbing to allow himself to start the season but lost the starting job to J.T O’Sullivan (Fun fact: prior to starting week 1 of the 2008 season, JTO had started a grand total of 0 games and only been in 5. I should just stop writing now.) Due to additional shoulder problems the Niners shut him down for 2008, and played decently in 2009 behind Shaun Hill and initially stunk so bad in 2010 that the Niners started Troy Smith for a few games (okay so Smith got injured again but still) before bouncing back to play well down the stretch. Yup, the same Troy Smith who cried when being challenged by Singletary on the sideline.
The fates haven’t been particularly kind to Alex Smith, but his sophomore season in 2006 beckons for further analysis. In Smith’s first full season as quarterback, the Niners put together a respectable 7-9 record despite a -114 run differential (the Niners won close and got BLOWN out of the water in their losses. Including one 41-0 shutout against the Chiefs back when Dante Hall was still relevant and Eddie Kennison was more than a guy who had ridiculously good hands in Madden). The expected win record based on their run differential that year was actually 5-11, or two wins worse than their actual record. That isn’t so hard to believe with a run differential so bad and at first glance it seems to be nothing more than luck. But perhaps… no it couldn’t be… could it be… moxie? Guts? Winnerability? Is that even a word?
Statistically and grammatically speaking, that’s a no, niet, nonn, and no. That last one was in Spanish. Below is a split of the 2006 season games organized by wins by more than a touchdown, games decided by a touchdown or less, and losses by more than a touchdown, with the average opponent record and margin of win or loss.
|W > 7||W-L < 8||L > 7|
|Avg Opp Rec||5.5 – 10.5||6.6 – 9.4||10.6 – 5.4|
Without going over the numbers again, what this really means is that the Niners could beat bad teams (barely) while getting demolished against teams better than them. In games decided by a touchdown or less they want 5-3 which can be considered especially lucky when considering they had 6 losses by an average of 25 points. That isn’t an occasional bad game, that indicates significant team problems. While I’d love to give that record meaning, it can really be boiled down to sampling error. Think of it like flipping a coin. You flip a coin 16 times, the probability of getting 8 heads is around 20% of the time. You flip a coin 1000 times, the probability of getting heads would be close to 50%. Point being, 16 games and the resulting win loss record doesn’t correctly indicate a team’s true talent. Margin of victories and losses does, and the huge margin in losses explains why the expected record is 5-11.
But football ability isn’t just measured by statistics, it’s also about the feel of the game. Sitting at 5-5 in a weak division the Niners were posed for a run just one game behind the Seahawks. After a close loss to the Rams and two subsequent losses to the Saints and Favres (with awful performances by Smith), it seemed like all progress had been lost. Then came a Seahawks game where the Niners entered the 4th quarter down 7-3. Something must have clicked because Smith turned into Montana, throwing two touchdown passes and mixing in some Young (Steve, not Vince. Wait that works too. Forget this note.) with a touchdown run that ended any hopes the Seahawks had of coming back. After, Smith played a competent game against the Cardinals in a loss and followed that up by playing well enough to beat a Broncos team in overtime that had the 8th best defense in the league. Smith didn’t turn any heads but did just well enough to lead the team down the field enough times to set up Nedney’s four field goals, including the game winner in overtime.
That was the last time I’ve ever felt that Smith had a bright future in this league. But it doesn’t mean Smith doesn’t have a future in the league, or that he still can’t be a useful quarterback with the Niners in the short run. As a fan you tend to hate unrelentingly, love unquestionably, hold grudges permanently, and forgive instantly. Sometimes all at once. Sometimes you hold onto the small bits of good news even when you know the big picture is a lie. Smith’s passer rating in the last two years settled at league average, but after given the starting job last year, he performed well. His quarterback rating in December of last year was a robust 96.0. In 2010 the 49ers tailored their game plan to Smith’s abilities, namely the spread offense, running out of shotgun more often than ever. With more time under this offense Smith could potentially become a serviceable starter. That may not seem like much for a former number 1 pick, but compared to the abysmal play we’ve seen in the past, it can be considered an achievement.
Regardless of circumstance, he still throws too many picks and makes too many bad decisions under pressure. (Although advancednflstats.com shows that in important situations Smith doesn’t hurt the team as much as he does normally. That’s just sad.) I know that he will struggle in the most inopportune times (he has a 42.9 career passer rating in late and close games, so that’s pretty much assured). I know he will never fulfill the expectations fans set for him in 2005, expectations that in retrospect he had no way of attaining. I know that for many people, Smith brings nothing but bad memories and wasted potential. I know that if he does fail yet again, I’ll be praying for the Niners to cut him.
I also know that until that happens, I’ll be rooting for him every week to succeed even as I curse him. I remember what he meant to me, the team, and the fans hoping for the next great quarterback to lead the franchise. I’ll hold onto every positive play, every positive step hoping that things finally turn the corner, and if it doesn’t come I’ll dream about the next quarterback we draft, hoping he will be the one that will finally take that throne.
But until that point, well, I’ll always have the memories of what could have been to hold me over. Because that’s what being a sports fan is all about, right?