Ahead of the 2005 NFL draft,
Alex Smith and Aaron Rodgers were stuck in a head-to-head competition to lock
down the No. 1 overall pick. Neither had really set themselves far apart from
the other, if at all, but when draft day arrived on that fateful April day,
then-49ers head coach Mike Nolan made the decision that Smith, not Rodgers, was
the one destined for greatness. Boy, was he wrong — at least for a little
Three years into each
player's career, Smith had thrown nearly double the interceptions (31) to
touchdowns (19) and appeared to be slowly closing in on Ryan Leaf territory.
Rodgers, meanwhile, still had yet to start an NFL game, but the Packers had
enough faith in their young gunslinger that they vetoed the [first] unretirment
attempt of their Hall of Fame quarterback, Brett Favre, in his favor.
Two years later, Rodgers
was hoisting his first of an expected many Lombardi Trophies while Smith found
himself sitting on the sidelines watching an undrafted quarterback — Shaun
Hill — taking over his starting job.
The 2011 season, though, brought a new system and a new
approach for the maligned Smith and in turn offered him new life in the NFL.
Jim Harbuagh had taken a middling Stanford football program
and brought it back to national prominence in the college ranks. With a stud
quarterback and a defense that wreaked havoc on every challenger, the Cardinal
were once again a national contender.
Harbaugh’s influence had the same sort of impact on Smith upon his
arrival in San Francisco ahead of the 2011 season.
After dealing with four different offensive coordinators
during his first five seasons in the NFL, Harbaugh finally brought the
stability and focus Smith needed to succeed.
A shift in offensive scheme, with the onus on a more
aggressive running game, allowed Smith to hone in on his chemistry with
receivers and work more with the short and intermediate routes to regain the
confidence lost in seasons past. Harbaugh was very selective with his play calling
in the early parts of the 2011 season and it ultimately worked out for Smith.
After struggling to even meet league averages during his
first five seasons, Smith excelled under Harbaugh in 2011 and looked to finally
transform into the quarterback expected when coming out of Utah.
Smith put up career numbers, setting career highs by
completing 61.3 percent of passes, throwing for 3,144 yards and posting a 90.7
QB Rating — good enough for ninth in the NFL. The personal success also brought on much greater success for the 49ers
San Francisco came one muffed punt and a few minutes away
from their first Super Bowl appearance since 1994. And a big portion of that
success could be attributed to Smith. As he continues to grow as a quarterback
so will the success of the 49ers as a franchise. The 49ers Week 1 win in Green
Bay this season was proof of that.
After seven long years and more bust references than I care
to count, Alex Smith has not only asserted himself as a legitimate NFL
quarterback but also a comparable — and I use the term loosely — signal
caller to the guy taken 23 picks later.