Alex Smith and our uneven discussion about quarterbacks

It was a blessing for the NFL Network in the middle of their lean period of the year. How happy they must have been; they were able to give respite to their viewers from an umpteenth rerun of the Top 10 NFL nicknames or from another episode of Total Access spent discussing numbers 70-61 on the players’ Top 100. For this, the network had 49ers quarterback Alex Smith and Carolina linebacker Jon Beason to thank.

There was something sad about the saga. On one end was a quarterback whom his team tried to replace after a 13-3 year, but failed; on the other was a linebacker who was part of a defence so bad it offset the excellent performance of his team’s rookie quarterback. However pathetic this story was, though, it once again brings up the neverending conversation about what we expect from quarterbacks, and how we should judge their level of success.

The incendiary quote came from Smith, who, when questioned about his pedestrian statistics, said the following about throwing for a lot of yards: “I think that’s a totally overblown stat. Because if you’re losing games in the second half, guess what? You’re like the Carolina Panthers and you’re going no-huddle the entire second half and, yeah, Cam Newton threw for a lot of 300-yard games (for the record, he had three), that’s great. You’re not winning, though.”

If this seems inoffensive to you, tell that to Jon Beason, who took what Smith said as a direct jab at his quarterback Cam Newton. Beason tweeted his scathing response: “Alex smith, don’t hate on Cam Bc your stats would’ve gotten u cut if Peyton decided to come 2 San Fran.Truth b told..That’s after a 13-3 yr.” Touché. Newton, it is worth recalling, had an impressive statistical year as a rookie for the Carolina Panthers, eclipsing Smith in passing yards and passing touchdowns among other things. The Panthers, however, finished 6-10 thanks in large part to the league’s 28th-ranked defence.

Let us put things back into perspective. Smith’s statement is not surprising coming from him, a quarterback who, if he is to be judged by any standard other than the “W” column, is passable at best. Back in 2005, as I was screaming in front of my television set that the Niners were making a mistake, Alex Smith became one of those predictable yet puzzling first overall picks. The so-called experts who comment on NFL football had long since annointed Smith as the best quarterback in the draft in front of my personal favourite, an underappreciated player from the University of California by the name of Aaron Rodgers. Fast forward to now, Smith gets credit for “managing the game well”; Rodgers has been the best quarterback in the game for the past two years.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that the drafting of Smith at first overall in ’05 triggered a conversation between my father and myself, which went something like this:

Dad: Alex Smith at first overall? They must be on drugs.

Me: I know, right?

Dad: The guy hasn’t played in anything like a pro scheme!

Me: I know, right?

Dad: Your sister can throw the ball farther than he can!

Me: I know, right?

Dad: Ahead of Aaron Rodgers? That’s like drafting Chad Pennington first overall with Dan Marino still on board.

Me: I know, right?

Now I, much like the NFL Network analysts, don’t think Smith meant to take a shot at Cam Newton specifically, but rather that he used him as an example of a case where statistics don’t tell the entire story. However, given his current situation, Smith should have kept quiet, or at the very least, avoided mentioning any names. A player so obviously limited in his physical talent, upside and accomplishments, Smith is in no position to give any lectures on how to get it done in the NFL.

His middle linebacker, the great Patrick Willis, came out on Twitter in support of Smith, but of course, he would. His reason for doing so is easily understood: it’s called being a professional and a good teammate. He’s also being modest. His unit had far more to do with the Niners’ success than anything Alex Smith did. And before the end of last season, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh defended his quarterback by snapping at a reporter for referring to Smith as a “game manager.” He is more than that, Harbaugh insisted, a statement he apparently meant so strongly that he was ready to replace Smith with the uncertain right shoulder of Peyton Manning. Had Manning spurned Denver and chosen the Niners, we might be talking about Smith as a Miami Dolphin. But going back to Willis, the logic of his defence of Smith was this: “Wins are wins” and Alex Smith wins.

There is an elephant in the room, and I’m going to get rid of it. This notion that we should evaluate the quality of a quarterback based on his team’s win column is absurd. It is too often used to give credibility to mediocre quarterbacks, and shows that many members of the NFL media specialize in sugarcoating. It depresses me that former-NFL-players-turned-analysts have bought into this idea and keep repeating it like a political slogan. I don’t need to have played football for about 15 years, nor do I need to be a coach to know that winning is a team accomplishment. Does Alex Smith win? No, the 49ers win. This isn’t tennis. There are 22 players on the field, and all of them impact the game.

One only has to look at someone playing another position to see the sheer absurdity of this view. Is LaDainian Tomlinson, unquestionably one of the great running backs in NFL history, considered a future Hall of Famer because his team wins lots of games? It can’t hurt, but of course not. He’s considered great because he plays on the kind of level that allows for his team to have a better chance of winning. There is a difference. That is to say he’s considered great because of his performance. And when you perform the way LT did for the Chargers, crazy statistics come with the territory. And nobody ever attempted to diminish LT’s greatness by giving him the “never won a Super Bowl” speech after the handful of times “Marty Ball” had the Chargers crashing out of playoff games they should have won. Smith is right to point out that stats are not everything, that they can be inflated by specific situations such as trailing by tons of points when the second half begins. That doesn’t make it right to say that wins are all he should be evaluated on.

Besides, it’s funny how this ridiculous rhetoric is applied so selectively. Listen to anyone talk about The Manning brothers, or Brady, or Brees or Rodgers. Nobody has to bring up this most transparent smoke screen to make a case for them. No one needs to resort to such logic-defying excuses. They aren’t great because they win, they win because they’re great. All of them can sit back and pick apart a defence like a biology student dissects dead frogs and mice. And that’s what we do, and should, appreciate about them. Not that the fact that they seem like great guys too is irrelevant.

Alex Smith looks like a nice guy as well, but in the meantime, it took three head coaches and seven years to build a team that could work its way around his shortcomings. The Niners had the league’s best special teams last year and a defence so stingy it brought back memories of the 2000 Ravens. His offensive line is laden with first-round picks and he has one of the game’s most dangerous tight ends to throw the ball to, not to mention Frank Gore running the ball. And he still couldn’t get it done. Granted, for his first few years in the league, he was forced to collect offensive coordinators like Kim Kardashian collects boyfriends. But what he has shown, up to this point, is that his limitiations are such that despite being a first overall pick, he’s unlikely ever to play like one.

Smith obviously has a chip on his shoulder because of his team’s attempt to acquire Manning, and he should. He reads this, and he should, as a sign that his coach believes that what we saw last year was the best of Alex Smith, and that if the 49ers wish to take the next step, they will need more from the quarterback position. He obviously is out to prove that he is the man who can give the Niners more at quarterback, for which he should be commended.

However, in his case, the way to show your coach that you mean business is not to compare yourself with another former first overall pick who, during his rookie year, played like a first overall pick. And that’s despite the fact that Newton had to make up for a defence that was leakier than the roof of an abandoned house. Just because the media insist upon sheepishly bringing up a team accomplishment to defend an individual’s underwhelming performance doesn’t mean they’re in anything other than denial. Being unable to call a spade a spade is not a virtue. Some of these analysts even dare bring up Troy Aikman, who wasn’t exactly Dr. Stats either, as a comparison. But while Aikman was never asked to do that much (look at the teams he had), he never gave the feeling his team won in spite of him, unlike Smith. We need to accept the fact that there are quarterbacks in the NFL, in greater quantity than we wish to admit, who will always leave coaches wanting more. And even Jim Harbaugh knows that despite the Niners’ impressive win column from last year, Alex Smith will most likely always be one of those.

One thought on “Alex Smith and our uneven discussion about quarterbacks

  1. Pingback: On the Falcons, so-called elite QBs, Tebow to the Jags, and the holidays « turpterritory

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