How will the NFL remember Alex Smith? As the 1st overall draft pick in 2005, ahead of future Hall of Famer, Aaron Rodgers? As the tough, intelligent, game-managing quarterback? As the 2020 Comeback Player of the Year, defying 17 surgeries, a brush with immobility and even death, to tough out one more season? Or how about the man who was replaced by not one, but two electrifying and enchanting quarterbacks.
Draft Day 2005. The San Francisco 49ers, home of Joe Montana and Steve Young, have the 1st overall pick after a disastrous 2-14 season. Following several years of Jeff Garcia behind center, a year of Jeff Ratney and Ken Dorsey, the 49ers were hoping to select their first franchise quarterback since the aforementioned Hall of Famers. Two prospects stood out. Scouts and front office executives were split on Alex Smith, out of the University of Utah and Aaron Rodgers, from the University of California. Jerry Angelo, the then GM of the Chicago Bears, was quoted saying, “I’d give Rodgers the edge (over Smith) just because he was easier to evaluate. And there’s a little more arm. But the edge is negligible.” In actual fact, the edge turned out to be 23 picks, with Rodgers selected 24th overall by the Green Bay Packers. Smith, of course, went to San Francisco.Embed from Getty Images
What followed was one of the worst rookie seasons ever by a quarterback. His first career start came in week five, having thrown just ten passes the previous week. He finished 9 for 23 for 74 yards, as the 49ers were routed 28-3 by the Colts. Smith started seven games in his rookie campaign, completing just a tick over half his attempted passes, throwing one touchdown and 11 interceptions. His TD% (Percentage of touchdowns thrown when attempting to pass) was historically low, even for a rookie, at 0.6%.
Norv Turner was hired as the new offensive coordinator in 2006, which coincided with Smith being named the new starting QB for the season. While still looking like a rookie during parts of the season, Smith showed flashes of why the 49ers drafted him first overall. He opened with 814 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions in the first three games. Ultimately, his first full season ended in a 7-9 record, with Smith 16 and 16 on touchdowns and interceptions. An interesting date to note in the career of Alex Smith; 1st of October 2006. The 49ers were blown out 41-0 to the Kansas City Chiefs, with Smith throwing two picks and only 93 yards. An irony of things to come.
The following, and final, six years in San Francisco were a maelstrom of recurring injuries, inconsistent play, time playing backup and one memorable, heroic playoff win. Shoulder injuries riddled Smith in 2007, and a broken bone in that area would wipe out his entire 2008 season. The following two seasons saw a QB carousel visit the Bay area, with Shaun Hill, David Carr and Troy Smith all seeing action. Despite this, Smith still started the majority of snaps. After a brutal seven seasons in the NFL, Smith finally made his postseason debut, and he didn’t disappoint. The 49ers 36-32 win over the Saints will forever go down in NFL playoff history. With four minutes left in the game, Smith led his team on 80 and 85-yard drives. A memorable 28-yard touchdown run, with Smith tip-toeing down the sideline, flirting with the white paint, would put the 49ers ahead, only for the Saints to hit back. Then, following another momentous drive, Smith hit Vernon Davies with nine seconds left in true Hollywood style heroics. Smith game off to jubilation from his sideline. But, unbeknownst to him, his first usurper was amongst those congratulating the heralded “game-manager”, a tall, long-limbed athlete, adorning the aesthetic number 7 jersey.Embed from Getty Images
Rewind to draft night, 2011. The 49ers bolstered their defence in the first round, selecting Aldon Smith – who would later be destructive in the Saints defeat to the 49ers. With the QB carousel moving on from San Francisco and Smith having a very “Alex Smith” season the previous campaign, Jim Harbaugh was out looking for a dynamic replacement. Cam Newton was the undisputed 1st overall selection, and the Panthers were not likely to be unseated from punching his ticket. Harbaugh would have to find a diamond in the rough, and there was one sparkling amongst the rubble of Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder Et al. If Cam Newton’s athletic ability was wowing scouts, Kaepernicks had them in fits. Standing 6 foot 5 and weighing in around 230 pounds, Kaepernick was a marvel. Even if he looked wiry and (I can’t believe this word was even used to describe a man weighing 230lbs) somewhat skinny. In any case, Harbaugh was besotted. With Andy Dalton being selected 35th overall early in the second round, the 49ers took their shot. Firing over their 45th, 108th and 145th picks to the Denver Broncos, they were on the clock and selected the dual-threat quarterback from Nevada. The ESPN draft analysts were in love with the pick, gushing over Kaepernick’s 4,000 rushing yards to go alongside over 10,000 passing while at Nevada. Mel Kiper was particularly in awe of Kaepernick, the person; “He’s a competitor, smart, very well-spoken young man, a class act”. Despite this, the consensus was that he was a project pick. Kiper went on to say that, “Jim Harbaugh’s going to have to mould this kid”, and Jon Gruden had concerns about Kaepernick’s lack of play under center, as Nevada primarily played out the Pistol, accommodating their QB’s dual-threat ability.
Fast-forward to the playoffs, and the Alex Smith-led 49ers were hosting the New York Giants. An overtime field goal from Lawrence Tynes ultimately doomed the 49ers, but Smith had played underwhelmingly, completing just 12 passes for 196 yards and two touchdowns. The game manager had struck again. Relying heavily on Frank Gore, Vernon Davies and Delanie Walker, the Giants allowed just a single reception to a wide receiver. Hardly the dynamism Harbaugh was looking for to compete for a Lombardi. The writing, it seemed, was on the wall.
2012 rolled in and Smith continued to be the starter, having signed a new three year $24 million contract. This was despite having talks with Miami and reports the 49ers were courting Peyton Manning as he exited Indianapolis.
Ironically, Smith’s final season in San Francisco proved to be his most productive. He opened the season with a victory of his draft adversary, defeating Rodgers and the Packers 30-22. In early October, he would have only his second and final 300 yard game for the 49ers, with a near-perfect QB rating, blowing out the Bills, 45-3. Entering a week ten matchup with the Rams, the 49ers had a record of 6-2, with Smith throwing 12 touchdowns to 5 interceptions. It would, however, be Smith’s final game for the fabled franchise. In the second quarter, he suffered a concussion and was replaced by Kaepernick, who had seen the field only sparingly on designed run plays thus far in his professional career. Although Smith was cleared to play mere weeks later, it was over. Kaepernick was named the starter following a victory on the road in New Orleans. Kaepernick was electric, fitting perfectly in Greg Roman’s offence. It proved to be one of the greatest quarterback changes in NFL history. Now, who knows whether Jim Harbaugh would’ve made the change if Smith had suffered the concussion. Smith was having a solid year, and the 49ers were winning. The decision was questioned at the time, but those soon went quiet once the postseason rolled around.Embed from Getty Images
The 49ers finished with an 11-4-1 record, winning the NFC West on the back of their impressive defence, which allowed just 17.1 points per game (2nd best in the league). They had their dynamic QB in tow, who was dazzling the league in Roman’s, seemingly impossible to stop, read-option offence. Smith watched from the sidelines as Kaepernick, gazelle-like, danced his way through defences with utter grace, speed and power. Kaepernick’s playoff performances cemented Harbaugh’s mid-season decision for the QB change. Against the Packers in the Divisional round, number 7 did things only Alex Smith could dream of. Rushing 16 times for 161 yards and two scores, Kaepernick was unstoppable. The Packers had no answer, with Aaron Rodgers going down 45-31, against his draft foe’s successor. I implore you to find highlights of this game, sit back, and enjoy. The following week, in the Georgia Dome, Kaepernick showed why he was a complete dual-threat QB. Only rushing for 21 yards on two attempts, he ripped through the Falcons defence through the air, completing 16 of 21 passes for 233 yards. Did I also mention the 49ers were down 17-0 in this game too? Not something Alex Smith could conceivably overcome. Having whiffed out the playoffs a year early, the 49ers now booked their ticket to the Superbowl, with Kaepernick at the head of one of the most dynamic and diverse offences the league had ever seen.
Squaring off against the Ravens in the Harbaugh brothers matchup, Kaepernick could not overcome the ferocious Ray Lewis led Ravens defence. A 34-31 defeat ended the fairytale for Colin Kaepernick, but his journey in San Francisco was just beginning. Alex Smith’s, however, was coming to an end.
This was the first time Alex Smith was replaced in his NFL career and it would not be the last. In part 2, we take a look at the man who usurped his spot as QB1 at the Kansas City Chiefs, the future Super Bowl winner and 2018 NFL MVP, Patrick Mahomes.