Yesterday, the 49ers were trounced by the Kansas City Chiefs, a team they were picked to beat. They were outplayed, and outcoached, in every facet of the game. Aside from a touchdown scored in the last five seconds, they failed to reach the end zone.
Last week, they played well against the Saints, and but for a few small breaks, they might actually have beaten them. But the pattern, the overwhelming evidence, now, seen in retrospect, of Smith's five plus years with the team, is that Smith isn't the quarterback to lead this team into contention. In fact, he never was. I've spoken about this before, but looking into the history, another disturbing trend becomes evident: Smith is a coach-killer.
Let's think back. Smith was drafted by Mike Nolan. NFL Drafts are not rocket science, but pro-organizations take great care with their selections, even though they know it's really a crap-shoot, because of the amount of money involved, and because of the consequences of wasting high draft picks (awarded on the basis of reverse performance). A great draft can yield star performers at key positions, and improve the fortunes of a troubled franchise in just a year or two. When Nolan was considering his choice--to choose a highly rated quarterback to form the nucleus of a passing offense--he had limited options. After 20 years of glory--the Niners compiled a record of 246-113 between 1981 and 2003--San Francisco was in a strictly re-building mode, having gone 2/14 in 2004! The storied franchise was in the doldrums and needed a saviour. Montana...Young...Garcia--those great years had been built around a brilliant passing game, executed by talented, quick quarterbacks who responded well to pressure and could improvise effectively on the field late in close games. As anyone who follows the game knows, in pro football, the quarterback, whatever his surrounding "cast" may be, constitutes about 90% of the potential success or failure of any team. The quarterback dictates the pace and style of the offense. A pro quarterback who can't pass accurately, under pressure, will never succeed in the NFL. 49er fans had been spoiled by 25 years of superior--even championship--quarterback talent.
The 2004 NFL draft wasn't "rich" in quarterbacks. Only two stood out: Alex Smith, from Utah, and Aaron Rodgers, from Cal Berkeley. Both had had comparable years in their last two years, leading their teams into post-season bowl contention. Smith had the added attraction of being an excellent student. Mike Nolan, the son of another San Francisco coach, Dick Nolan, was, if anything, even more stern and iron-jawed than his father had been. His press conferences were stiff affairs, and he was known to demand total obedience and cooperation from all his players. In selecting Smith, Nolan was reported to have been swayed by Smith's dedication and malleability: Smith was a man who could follow orders, who could be counted on to memorize his playbook and keep his thoughts in order, both on and off the field. He was a model citizen, as well as a disciplined player. This was the quarterback Nolan thought he wanted. But things didn't go the way he planned.
In Smith's first year, he completed only 51% of his passes, threw for a single touchdown while being intercepted 11 times. The next year was slightly better, at 7-9, and Smith made what seemed like significant progress, completing 58% of his passes, and throwing for 16 touchdowns while throwing as many interceptions. It wasn't great stuff, but it looked like the kid was improving. However, in 2007, in a September game against the Seattle Seahawks, Smith injured his shoulder. During the next few games, back up QB Trent Dilfer was given the starting job, and eventually journeyman Shaun Hill took over towards the end of that season. Serious conflict broke public after Smith's aborted attempt to return to play beginning in October, a stretch during which his quarterback rating and performance were near the bottom statistically. Nolan, after three years of failure, needed a scapegoat for his own inability to produce a winner, so he accused Smith of dogging it, of blaming his poor performance on injury. Smith, in retaliation, openly challenged Nolan's opinion in the press, insisting that his injury had not healed. As it turned out, Smith was right, his treating physician recommending surgery at the end of the season. Smith missed the whole of 2008, the quarterback duties being shared by J.T. O'Sullivan and Shaun Hill that year. After week seven, Nolan was fired and replaced by Mike Singletary.
It could reasonably be said, I think, that, despite his injury plagued seasons of 2007-2008, Smith's failure to mature into an effective quarterback was the primary cause for Mike Nolan's failure as a head coach to bring respectability to the franchise. Some blame may lie with Nolan's combative handling of his prima donna during a difficult time, for both of them, but Smith's decision to go public with his feud regarding his injury would become the final nail in Nolan's coffin, though the actual effect would take a while come to pass. Nolan's investment in Smith--his hand-picked successor to fill the void created when Garcia left after 2003--proved to be his undoing.
Starting out the 2009 season, Singletary tried to create competition among his quarterbacks, letting Shaun Hill and Smith duke it out for numero uno. Despite going 3-2 after five games, Singletary decided to let Smith, the younger man, the hope of the franchise, try to establish himself once more as the team leader. Smith took the team the remaining 11 games, going just 5-6, with his wins coming against poor teams such as the Rams, Lions, Bears and Jaguars. His stats were deceptive--under pressure, he usually folded, throwing interceptions or becoming flustered or confused behind the line.
Despite his sterling college record, Smith's performance in the pros has lacked luster. He rarely seems to be in control of his players, and there's a sense of weak conviction, as if he had no confidence. His passes often sail wide, or are thrown too hard, as if to compensate by forcing throws into tight coverage. When he rolls out, he rarely sees the open man, and usually "dumps" the ball off to a running back. There's a sense, too, of mental detachment, as if he were not quite completely involved in the action on the field.
Meanwhile, after subbing under Brett Favre at Green Bay for three years, Aaron Rodgers stepped up in 2008, becoming a star performer. His touchdown to interception ratio, total yards, and overall rating are head and shoulders above Smith, who continues to struggle, in this, his fifth active season. Much has been made of the fact that Smith has had to deal with a succession of offensive coordinators, that he hasn't been allowed to become "comfortable" with a single, integrated system. The Niners have employed four offensive coordinators in as many years: Norv Turner (2006), Jim Hostler (2007), Mike Martz (2008), and Jimmy Raye (2009-10). Turner left to coach the San Diego Chargers, but Martz was fired for no reason that I could see. As the genius offensive mind of the St. Louis Rams in their glory years, he was 53-32, taking his team to the play-offs four years out of six. But I doubt whether the changing game plans can be used to excuse most of Smith's failures as a player. The team's defense has been vastly improved; the running game, except for yesterday's debacle, has worked just fine. Under Singletary's preferred ground game approach, really very little is asked of the quarterback: 175 yards of error-free medium range passing should be adequate. Smith isn't being asked to dominate with 3 or 4 hundreds yards of wide-open spread air attack. Yet he still has trouble. Even against Kansas City, which doesn't possess a great defensive squad, he looked ineffectual and confused.
This year, everyone is saying, let's see, finally, whether Alex Smith can find the inspiration that has eluded him all his pro career. He deserves just this one last chance to prove himself. Singletary, a strong, stern disciplinarian just as his predecessor Nolan was, has trouble admitting mistakes, and tends to stick with ideas and commitments long after they've outlived their use. Here's my prediction: If Singletary doesn't jettison Smith before the end of the current (2010) season, I doubt whether he'll survive. Smith brought about--directly and indirectly--the demise of Mike Nolan. If Singletary doesn't see the light, he could find himself broken on the same wheel. Alex Smith is never going to be a good quarterback, much less a great one. But Singletary might end up taking his inspiring, powerful personality elsewhere. So far, he's shown himself to be a poor judge of coaching talent, picking the ineffectual, bumbling Jimmy Raye to run his team's offense.; it was announced this morning that, in an apparent flurry of concern, he's fired Raye.
The 49ers glory years were built upon a foundation of offensive innovation under Walsh; for years afterward, his continued influence upon player and coaching selection informed the management choices of the franchise. But Walsh is dead, and the caravan moves on.
Sometimes you have to bite the bullet and go back to the drawing board. I always thought Hill was the kind of quarterback Singletary admired: A blue-collar sort of guy, not flashy, but reliable, careful, deliberate, tough. But Hill is gone. Whatever Singletary chooses to do, his solution for the quarterback problem will determine his fate. Either he gets rid of Smith and gets a better one on the free-agent market, or he swallows his pride through another losing season, hoping to get a high enough draft pick in the off-season to bet on another college phenom!