Doug Robinson: Former University of Utah star, now 49er, Alex Smith: From bust to division-winner
So Alex Smith — battered and injured, booed, written off as a bust, publicly scorned, targeted by sideline coaching tantrums, repeatedly demoted behind nameless rivals, his toughness questioned — has finally arrived seven years after his NFL journey began.
Smith, the former University of Utah star, has helped the previously hapless San Francisco 49ers win 13 games and a division championship. He will lead them into the playoffs this week against the New Orleans Saints.
Smith has become one of the steadiest, if least spectacular, quarterbacks in the league. What a difference the right coach and environment can make for a young quarterback. Only a year ago, Smith lost the starting job twice as the Niners won just six games.
The window of opportunity rarely remains open for quarterbacks who haven't proved themselves within a few seasons, even first-round picks. They are either waived — JaMarcus Russell (3 seasons and done), Ryan Leaf (5), Cade McNown (4), Jim Druckenmiller (3), Joey Harrington (6) — or typecast as career backups — David Carr, Matt Leinart, Akilli Smith. But Alex Smith has found his game in mid-career with the arrival of rookie head coach Jim Harbaugh, the former Stanford coach and NFL quarterback.
With the lowest interception rate in the league, Smith completed 61 percent of his passes while totaling 3,144 yards, 17 touchdowns and five interceptions, which adds up to a 90.7 quarterback rating — all career-highs, by far. Not bad for a guy who, at various times, was relegated to a backup role behind the likes of J.T. O'Sullivan, Shaun Hill and Troy Smith. It is an amazing resurgence for a player whose first three years resulted in just 11 wins, a 54 percent pass completion rate, 19 touchdown passes and 31 interceptions.
"I told Alex, 'Hey, we're going to want you to come back here next year,'" said Harbaugh.
Before Harbaugh's arrival, the 49ers were ready to give up on Smith, the first pick of the 2005 draft. It was generally agreed that he was a flop. Google "Alex Smith and bust" and you'll get thousands of hits.
And it was largely the 49ers' fault. They mishandled Smith every step of the way. They couldn't have done a worse job of nurturing a young quarterback if they had tried. They could give a clinic on How to Screw Up a Quarterback. In fact, let's do it for them.
HOW TO SCREW UP A YOUNG QUARTERBACK IN EIGHT EASY STEPS:
1. Hire seven offensive coordinators in his first seven seasons — in this case, Mike McCarthy in 2005, Norv Turner 2006, Jim Hostler 2007, Mike Martz 2008, Jimmy Raye 2009, Mike Johnson 2010, Greg Roman 2011. Each one tweaked the offense, some of them dramatically, which forced Smith to start over each season to varying degrees. A young quarterback is already faced with the daunting challenge of making split-second decisions — reading defenses and throwing on time — without giving him the additional challenge of a new offense each season.
2. Hire four head coaches in seven seasons, from the defensive-minded Mike Nolan (2005-08) to former linebacker Mike Singletary (2008-10) to interim coach Jim Tomsula (one game in 2010) to Harbaugh (2011-). Two of them handled the quarterback dramatically different than Harbaugh — or mishandled.
3. Throw him into action before he's ready. Whatever you do, don't give him the luxury of an apprenticeship that allows him to stand on the sideline for two or three seasons and learn the game, which is how Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers developed. Instead, insert him in the starting lineup five games into his rookie season, the equivalent of teaching a kid how to swim by throwing him in the deep end. Result: 1 TD pass and 11 interceptions in nine starts. Occasionally, this philosophy works (Cam Newton, for instance), but it's not for everyone (see Harrington, Carr, Leaf) and tends to shatter confidences and foster bad habits.
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