Thursday, November 22, 2012

49ers QB Alex Smith, entitlement, and the magic of Urban Meyer

Alex Smith (#11) has led the 49ers offense with splendid results, but Colin Kaepernick (#7) showed in last Monday night's 49ers win over the Bears that he may be the better QB for the 49ers.
San Francisco 49ers QB Alex Smith suffered a concussion a couple weeks ago, leading coach Jim Harbaugh to turn to 2nd year backup Colin Kaepernick, a mobile and talented prospect out of Nevada. Last Monday Kaepernick did well (16 for 23, 243 yds, 2 TD, no picks) against a tough Chicago Bears defense in leading San Francisco to a convincing 32-7 win.
Despite Alex Smith's success and the 49ers sitting at 7-2-1 with Smith playing most of those games, Harbaugh faced a QB controversy if Smith was healthy for this Sunday's game against the New Orleans Saints. Kaepernick is being groomed as the QB of the future (and has seen some action out of Wildcat packages), but in shredding one of the NFL's top defenses in a high profile game it now appears that Kaepernick has the talent in the present to lead the 49ers offense.
Harbaugh first stated he was willing to go with the 'hot hand', i.e. play the QB who is currently playing well... indicating he was going to go with Kaepernick even if Smith was healthy. Despite not formally committing with the media to either Smith or Kaepernick, sources indicate that regardless of Smith's health (and jury's out on whether Smith is 100% back from his concussion or not) Harbaugh will go with Kaepernick this Sunday and possibly beyond.
Fan reaction is mixed, but an uncomfortable lot of 49ers fans are upset with the decision because they believe Alex Smith's embattled career path and recent success entitles him to the starting role. ESPN's LZ Granderson has also jumped on that bandwagon.
Let's talk about entitlement.
I'll digress from NFL football a second, go out on a limb and cite entitlement as the #1 obstacle in improving the Seattle Mariners. How many players have the M's kept well past their expiration date in key roles, refusing to replace or bench them, due to a sense that they were entitled to their everyday roles, entitled to a chance to hit/pitch out of slumps? Just some obvious examples: Carl Everett, Ken Griffey Jr.'s last run, Jose Vidro, Miguel Olivo's recent run, Bret Boone, Rich Aurilia, Jeff Cirillo... yes, even Ichiro in 2012... relievers like Norm Charlton, Eddie Guardado, Rick White, Jose Mesa. Even when it was clear to the naked eye that those guys were hurting the team, management not only kept them in the lineup but in key lineup slots and roles out of a sense of veteran entitlement.
Entitlement is entirely a subjective social construct that depends on the judgment of whoever is making the decision to entitle someone or not. Even our laws, up to the US Constitution, exist because of sociopolitical choices made by our government leaders. They could decide tomorrow to take them all away, for any reason legitimate or otherwise: That these laws continue to exist are a matter of collective choice. To a lesser extent, any decision that someone is entitled to something is purely a subjective choice on the part of whoever makes that decision.
To say that a player should not be benched because of a subjective belief that he deserves to keep his role has no basis in reason or reality.
Alex Smith has had an embattled career on a franchise that until Harbaugh arrived as coach had an erratic sense of direction. Surrounded by a revolving door of limited talent and poor coaching, Smith floundered when he did get to play and almost had his career literally crushed. Smith healed up and Harbaugh arrived after turning Stanford into a college football powerhouse, quickly developing the same sort of solid running game and defense as at Stanford. With surprising quickness the 49ers became a winner... and Alex Smith suddenly became an effective QB in Harbaugh's system, bolstered by star veteran tailback Frank Gore, improved front line blocking and a vastly improved defense covering his back.
Like managers in baseball, quarterbacks in football are frequently given far, far more credit and blame for their team's fortunes than is deserved. There are some cases where it's somewhat justified: The QB of a pass-heavy air attack like Drew Brees in New Orleans (or any run and shoot QB ever) is obviously largely responsible for his offense's fortunes. But even then the playcalling of the coaches and coordinators plays a large role in what the QB can and can't do: Think about the run-first playcalling of the Seahawks, the limited nature of the pass plays called, and consider what effect that has on Russell Wilson's ability to lead the offense.
When the 49ers were a disorganized mess, Alex Smith struggled badly. When the 49ers built a solid team around him, Alex Smith succeeded. You could do this with most NFL QBs and see largely similar results (ask Trent Dilfer about how he got his Super Bowl ring). It's only when you have very talented exceptions to the rule like Andrew Luck, or Peyton Manning during his final Colts seasons that you see good QBs carry lesser teams. And it's rare you see exceptionally bad QBs bring an otherwise great team down, because obviously a coach will either bench a bad QB if he has a potentially better option on the roster, or rework the offense to minimize the responsibility that QB has for carrying the offense.
Alex Smith has a gaudy 104.1 QB rating after 9 starts in 2012. He has completed 152 of 217 passes (70%) for 1731 yards, 13 TDs and 5 INT. Over the previous three seasons he did post solid numbers (81.5 rating in 10 starts in in 2009, 82.1 in 10 starts in 2010, 90.7 in a full season in 2011).
So don't take the following as a statement that I think Alex Smith is a bad QB. And of course let's assume for this discussion that both he and Colin Kaepernick are healthy: Obviously if he's still suffering effects from his concussion then Colin should start regardless. But I don't think Alex Smith is a great QB who is being held back by circumstance, or one that deserves Franchise QB status. In fact, I consider him one of the most overrated QB prospects of all time.
Alex Smith played his college ball at the University of Utah under coach Urban Meyer, who famously turned Utah into a BCS title contender with his spread option. Smith saw incredible success in this system, throwing 47 TDs to 8 INT in 25 NCAA starts before being selected #1 overall by the 49ers in the 2005 draft.
However, two caveats. Urban Meyer got the job at Utah by having done the same thing at Bowling Green, producing two bowl seasons at BGU and making a mid-major star out of QB Josh Harris. Harris did not get the attention Smith got, drafted in the 6th round of the 2004 draft by the Baltimore Ravens and bouncing around several NFL benches before retiring in 2008 to focus on advertising (he briefly came out of retirement to play in the Continental Indoor Football League).
And following Alex Smith, Urban Meyer once again parlayed his success into a new and greater role, taking the coaching job at Florida and turning them into a BCS title contender. His most famous QB pupil threw for 9286 yards, 88 TDs and 15 INT in 55 career starts and won the 2007 Heisman Trophy.
If this guy's passes can't hit the backside of a barn, how did Urban Meyer get him to throw for 9286 yards and 88 TDs, win a Heisman Trophy + lead Florida to BCS title contention?
That QB, Tim Tebow, is considered a deeply flawed media magnet punchline with insufficient ability to be an NFL QB. Alex Smith succeeded in the exact same system that allowed a deeply flawed, allegedly incapable QB to throw for over 9000 yards, 88TDs and win a Heisman Trophy. Think about that.
Alex Smith is probably a better skilled QB than Tim Tebow, but the idea that he is a top prospect superstar soiled by circumstance is an overstatement. In actuality, the 49ers vastly overrated Alex Smith when they drafted him, and what the 49ers have right now is somewhere in the middle: A decent but not great QB that can perform well if surrounded by the right talent.
That said, QB is thus an upgradeable position for the 49ers and the 49ers knew it, drafting Colin Kaepernick under Jim Harbaugh's watch with the 36th overall pick in the 2011 draft. Now that Kaepernick is showing in the present that he can lead the 49ers offense, Harbaugh is understandably considering the notion that his new QB is not only ready to take the reins but is superior to his incumbent QB.
Alex Smith is not a sacred cow, and should not be kept in the starting QB slot out of a sense of entitlement. He is probably at the zenith of his upside as an NFL QB, a man whose reputation as a pro has never fit his actual ability. Colin Kaepernick should not be denied the opportunity to start, to not only grow his already solid ability with experience but offer the 49ers a better chance to win as the starter than Smith does... just because of some mythical sense that Smith's success in a situation that maximizes his ability entitles him to a starting role.
Ask fans of the Seattle Mariners how a sense of veteran entitlement worked out for their team.

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