There is a tendency in America to favor the underdog, and to revel in the phenomenon of redemptive grace.
There is no story that is more heart-warming to Americans than the underachiever playing beyond his/her presumed capacity, and we embrace the unexpected phoenix rising from the ashes of mediocrity to shine with unexpected glory.
That narrative makes great copy, and it's hard not to be inspired by the example.
But reality seldom follows this heroic paradigm. We base our predictions and expectations on obvious qualities, tested and demonstrated skills. Superior past achievement is more likely than not to presage future excellence.
It's not unusual for a college star quarterback to fail in the National Football League. It's one of the stubbornly clear differences between college and professional football, that great success--even over-the-top record-breaking years--by a college quarterback--and even if playing for one of the nation's top schools--does not tend to prove his worth as a potential star quarterback in the NFL. This has been shown over and over again. On the other hand, it's almost as unlikely that a quarterback who didn't show much in college, could ever become a star as a pro. But it does happen. Still, when measuring odds, it's best to stick with past wisdom.
As I said before here, Alex Smith lacks a certain je-ne-sais-quoi which all successful pro quarterbacks possess. It isn't a single quality, but a difficult-to-define ingredient which is made up partly of character, partly of physical ability, partly of how one responds to pressure, and an elusive substance (elusiveness?). In order to rise to prominence as a pro QB, there must be consistency, consistency over a whole season, which is now 16 games. But along with that consistency, which is expressed through classic skills and ability, the secret attributes (or aptitudes) of focus and concentration must be present. It seldom happens that any team simply rolls over the competition a whole season long. And even when it does, there may be lapses in determination. Intensity is a crucial element. Holding to a high level intensity, through large or small contests, is not easy. Wins can make you complacent, can make you believe that your performances were easier than they really were.
With the coming of Harbaugh, the 49ers finally had a football mind which could unite the various components of the team together. Every NFL team has lots of talent. But like any team sport, that isn't nearly enough by itself. Teams need good coaches, and most of all, they need leaders, and the quarterback is the supreme leader-figure on every successful team.
When Smith was drafted--over Aaron Rodgers--it was because he seemed to have the potential to be a very disciplined player, one whose mental application would enhance what seemed to be his great natural ability. Smith is a smart guy, and he does have superior physical skills. And he's not a quitter. But these qualities alone don't make a winner in the NFL.
Thinking back over the last few weekends of play, I've asked myself whether I think Smith, at long last, deserves to be considered alongside the best quarterbacks playing in the league today. Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers. And the conclusion I come to is that he doesn't. All of these quarterbacks have won Super Bowls--but that's less important than how they play the game generally.
The 49ers success in 2011 has been built on a great run defense--a great overall defense, really--and an offense which doesn't make big mistakes. The team leads the league in turnover ratio, and their special teams and kicking units are near the top. What that means in practical terms is that the offense isn't expected to put up big numbers, just put up enough points to win.
But an offense which habitually depends upon its defense to win games can fall into bad habits. Chronic complacency can creep into the play-calling book. As a defining character-trait, reliability is probably overrated in the NFL. Events on the field on game-day are chaotic, to say the least. It's the ability to improvise, to adjust, to adapt, which makes great players great, and great teams successful. A quarterback dropping back to pass has literally to make decisions in fractions of a second. Announcers attempting to define how a great quarterback functions correctly in these situations fall back on words like "athleticism" or "touch" or "magic"--words which don't capture the essence.
What the great quarterbacks possess is the ability to tune out distraction, to stay focused on the fewest necessary, crucial matters-at-hand. They enter a mental "zone" in which crowd noise, the snarling grunts, flailing rushers' limbs, and the rapidly unfolding patterns of men in movement resolve into an apprehensible design. Functioning under these conditions doesn't require great intelligence. It's a different quality. Soldiers sometimes possess it. People who habitually perform under pressure may even become accustomed to it, and yet still be unable to overcome their native weakness under stress.
Smith's ability to improvise, to focus, to tune out distraction simply does not rise to the level of these other contemporary figures. When the game's on the line, and the play is unfolding, Smith doesn't "see" and "execute" at the same level. It may be a kind of desperation which impairs his thinking or perception, it may be a subtle sense of premonition of failure, a sense of inadequacy exacerbated by the reinforcement of repeated shortcomings over the last 7 years, or a breakdown in the belief in his own substance. Whatever it is--and I'm aware I'm confronting the same descriptive failure I mentioned earlier--it's a quality which I saw yesterday in Tony Romo and Eli Manning during the Dallas-New York game. Both players conducted dramatic come-from-behind drives in the last five minutes of play. Watching this, I realized that Smith would never have been able to bring anything like that off. All the intelligence, the discipline, the study and practice, wouldn't have helped him. Neither Romo, nor Manning, nor, for that matter, Brees or Rodgers or Brady, have Smith's keen intelligence.
Which is why, despite whatever season record the 49ers put up between now and the end of week 16, they will not advance in the play-offs. The coach, the team, and the fans all know this, whatever their official position. Given a serious opponent, the 49ers don't have the same driver behind the wheel as the best teams do. With Smith at the helm, the 49ers will never be a first tier competitor. Great teams begin with great quarterbacks.
Between 2008 and 2010, under Peyton Manning, the Indianapolis Colts were 61-19. This year, with Manning out injured, they're 0-13. With a great quarterback, a star performer, the 49ers might well be 13-0 at this point in the season, and their points scored versus points allowed ratio would be astronomical.
The sad truth is that the 49ers will not be truly competitive until they admit that Smith, despite his gifts, lacks the essential ingredients for greatness in the NFL. Every "little victory" which they secure now, postpones the inevitable quest for a better talent at that position. Smith was accorded a sort of stay of execution by the inter-season lock-out, which prevented teams from planning their upcoming seasons. Harbaugh, hired as the new commander, had little choice in his quarterback. He couldn't draft a new one, and there were no impressive names on the free agency list. He had to dance with the guy he had. All of which is small consolation to 49er faithful.
From the moment Mike Nolan drafted Smith, the 49ers--though they couldn't have known it at the time--have been in a rebuilding mode. Smith defeated the efforts of two talented coaches--Nolan, and Singletary. Harbaugh, despite this season's surprise performance, could be next to go. Not that he doesn't realize that in his nightmares. The worst thing is, as the 49ers build up this year's won-lost record (they're presently 10-3) their position in the draft pushes their future further and further away. Every year that a pro NFL team fails to acquire a superior quarterback, makes their immediate future possible success-horizon appear more distant. Great teams come and go, and teams go into funks in the standings. But good teams use those opportunities to remedy problems, and to plan for a better future. Smith's tenure as the 49ers "quarterback of the future" has been a bust. The team is still living on a dead dream. Despite this year's record.