Saturday, October 29, 2011

What Alex Smith Has Taught Us About QB Development

In 2009 Alex Smith looked done. Four years into his NFL career and Smith had shown only minor signs that he could be an NFL starting quarterback, and the San Francisco 49ers looked desperate for a replacement. Fortunately for Smith and the 49ers the 2010 NFL draft was thin at the quarterback position and the 49ers entered 2010 with Smith at the helm for what turned out to be a nightmare season. Head Coach Mike Singletary looked awful, the fans religiously booed Smith, and the end result was the drafting of Nevada QB Colin Kaepernick in the early second round of the 2011 NFL draft.

Here we are now in week 8 of the 2011 NFL season and the 49ers, under new head coach and former Pro Bowl QB Jim Harbaugh, are 5-1, and Smith is having a consistent, successful, though not flashy, season in which his TD to INT ratio is 8-2. Sometime we forget that Alex Smith is only 27 years old. Perhaps it’s because he’s been in the league for six years, or perhaps it’s because he was drafted ahead of Aaron Rodgers, but either way it’s safe to say that at this point in his career, with zero playoff appearances, a 74.3 career QB rating, and a 59-55 career TD to INT ratio, Alex Smith has not lived up to the billing of first overall pick, or franchise quarterback.

But was Smith ever given a chance? We’ve all heard the stories about how in six seasons he’s had five different offensive coordinators. On top of that, his team has consistently ranked near the bottom of the league in team defense. In many ways, Smith was a product of an unstable organization that made a lot of bad moves internally, while making some good player personnel moves over the same time period.

Enter Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh brought an energy to the 49ers that only a local college football hero could bring. The idea of Harbaugh as the head coach of the 49ers excited the fans to believe in Smith because Harbaugh believed in Smith. On the field, Harbaugh inspired because he was young enough to relate to the players, and unlike mostly every other head coach in the league, has notoriously successful and inspiring NFL experience as a player. As a quarterback, Harbaugh could relate to Smith’s troubles, having gone through similar troubles with the Chicago Bears who drafted him, until he found success in the mid 1990’s with the Indianapolis Colts.

And so Harbaugh gave Smith a shot, and thus far Smith has performed, not by putting up gaudy stats, but by out-managing opposing QB’s such as Josh Freeman and Michael Vick. In a road game against a daunting Detroit Lions team, Smith had his worst game of the season, but still did enough to lead the 49ers to their most impressive win of the season.

And so it looks like the 49ers have their quarterback of the future. For now, Colin Kaepernick will be relegated to the bench, and for now that’s totally fine with Jim Harbaugh and the fans in San Francisco, because right now Alex Smith is starting to look like the franchise quarterback that they drafted him to be in 2005.

And there’s a lesson to be learned around the league from this as well. So often the top prospect quarterbacks land in volatile situations. There’s a reason that the Rams had the first overall pick to draft Sam Bradford with to begin with. As fans we see the successes of rookie QB’s such as Andy Dalton, Ben Roethlisberger, Mark Sanchez, and Joe Flacco, and condemn the QB’s who don’t win immediately, which is absurd.

It’s easy to forget that the 2002 Steelers, a team with Roethlisberger inherited two years later, were a second round playoff team, and in 2001 were the number one seeded team in the AFC playoffs. The 2008 Jets were a 9-7 team that collapses at the end of the year, but the personnel was in place for the Jets to be a playoff team in 2009 when Mark Sanchez took over. The 2006 Ravens, which Joe Flacco inherited in 2008, were a 13-3 team with a first round bye in the AFC playoffs. And the 2009 Bengals won perhaps the toughest division in the NFL, before a step back year in 2010 allowed them to draft Andy Dalton early in the second round. Tom Brady inherited a team that was a Super Bowl contender through the late 1990’s before a step back year in 2000 made them the surprise team of 2001. In 1998 Peyton Manning took over a team that was in the playoffs in 1996, and were in the AFC title game in 1995. Aaron Rodgers inherited a team that was an overtime loss away from going to the Super Bowl. More than any sport Football is a team sport, and the situation that a quarterback falls into often defines their success. Steve Young and Vinny Testaverde both failed miserably with an awful Buccaneers team, yet had success elsewhere. Was it because they got better, or was it because the personnel around them in San Francisco and New York was better?

Still much of the personnel from their last Super Bowl run was in place when Brady took over in 2001. In 2010 Sam Bradford inherited a team that hadn’t been to the playoffs since 2004, and in 2005 Alex Smith inherited a team that hadn’t been to the playoffs since 2002. Now, here we are early in Bradford’s career where the fans are already contemplating ridding themselves of Bradford, who was at one point a “can’t-miss” prospect, for Andrew Luck, this year’s “can’t miss” prospect. While in San Francisco, many are wondering if they should have drafted Colin Kaepernick so early.

I believe that a quarterback should be given time, and it won’t be the worst thing in the world if they sit and learn the game for awhile before they’re thrown into the fire, or given up on. It used to be commonplace for a quarterback to watch for a while. Joe Montana, Phil Simms, Brett Favre, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and countless other all time great quarterbacks watched and learned for full seasons before they became starters.

Unfortunately, the same patience is no longer granted in this era of free agency and rookie contracts, a team needs to know if a guy is a franchise quarterback right away, and the rule changes have made it easier for a quarterback to obtain success earlier.

Still, it would have been easy to give up on Alex Smith, and in a way the 49ers kind of did. But it looks like all he needed was the right situation.

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