The Vindication of Alex Smith
Before the 2011 NFL season, Alex Smith was on the verge of being labeled the 'b' word. The 'b' word is the one label no professional athletes want. Being labeled a 'bust' by the fans and media is the ultimate sign of failure.
The 49ers signal caller was the number one pick of the 2005 draft. When Matt Leinart decided to return to USC for the 2005 season, the 49ers were forced to scramble. Alex Smith, Aaron Rodgers, and Jason Campbell emerged as the top quarterback prospects that year. The 49ers went with Smith because head coach Mike Nolan thought his and Rodgers' personalities would clash.
Smith was then entrusted to be the savior of a once proud franchise that had become a laughing stock. Dealing with an injury and ineffective play, Smith played only nine games his rookie year. He completed just over 50% of his passes, and threw only one touchdown to nine interceptions.
In 2006, with Norv Turner calling plays, Smith had a solid sophomore campaign. He upped his completion percentage to nearly 60%, and threw for almost 3,000 yards.
When Turner was hired to coach the Chargers before the 2007 season, Smith was stuck with his third offensive coordinator in as many seasons. Smith regressed mightily under Jim Hostler, and played only seven games before being placed on injured with a shoulder injury. Smith missed all of 2008 because of complications from the shoulder surgery in 2007.
Smith took a huge pay cut to play out the final two years of his contract in 2009 and 2010. With Mike Singletary now coaching, the 49ers were uber conservative on offense. Smith still managed to put up decent numbers in a system that didn't allow for gaudy passing statistics.
The big problem for Smith was that the wins weren't coming while the turnovers were.
Smith reached his low point as an NFL quarterback during the 2010 season. Trailing Philadelphia 24-10 at home, 70,000 frustrated fans at Candlestick screamed for Smith's backup, David Carr. The same David Carr that had been labeled a bust by the Houston Texans fan base when he couldn't lead them to the playoffs.
After the 2010 season, the jury was still very much out on Smith. He wasn't terrible, but he wasn't living up to the lofty expectations placed on number one draft picks. Aaron Rodgers had passed him by leaps and bounds, and the Niners hadn't sniffed the playoffs in any of Smith's six seasons.
Some of Smith's shortcomings could have been blamed on injuries, a lack of continuity, and a bad organization. However, at some point, a guy just has to go out there and get it done if he wants to win the respect of the fans and media.
All that changed on January 7th, 2011. Jim Harbaugh was hired to be the 49ers coach just four days after his Stanford Cardinal defeated Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl.
For the first time in his career, Smith would be playing for an offensive minded coach. Even though Smith wasn't under contract during the lockout, Harbaugh gave him a great vote of confidence by telling him to organize and run player workouts as if he were the starter. As soon as the lockout ended, the 49ers signed Smith to a one-year $5 million dollar deal.
Once the 2011 season started, the 49ers were the surprise team of the league. With Smith at the helm, San Francisco got off to a 9-1 start. During the season, it seemed like every time fans or the media expected the 49ers to show their true colors they found a way to win.
There is no doubt that Vic Fangio's defense and Frank Gore's running were big keys to San Francisco's success, but you can not discount Smith's play in '11. If you want to call him a game manager, that's fine. In a year where three quarterbacks threw for over 5,000 yards, Smith's 3,144 yards seem modest. The number that really pops out his his TD/Int. ratio. Smith threw 17 touchdown passes to only 5 interceptions.
Smith saved his finest professional start for the biggest possible stage. In his first career playoff game, Smith led the 49ers to an improbable 36-32 win over New Orleans. Smith threw for 299 yards, three touchdown passes, one rushing touchdown, and no interceptions. He also engineered two amazing go ahead touchdown drives in the final 2:11 of the game.
However, Smith saved his best for last. In what is already being dubbed 'The Catch III,' Smith hit Vernon Davis on a 14 yard touchdown pass with nine seconds left in the game to take the lead for good.
Alex Smith, thought by many to be a bust at the start of the season, is now one win away from the Super Bowl!