Smith making unlikely turnaround with Niners
SANTA CLARA, Calif. – He was prematurely anointed, rushed into action before he was ready and booed by an unforgiving home crowd.
His throwing shoulder was pummeled, and his reputation took an even more vicious beating. His head coach publicly questioned his toughness, and teammates derisively referred to him as “The Lion,” as in the cowardly character from “The Wizard Of Oz.”
He had two arm surgeries, got a haircut to the tune of $17 million in surrendered wages, lost a pair of quarterback competitions and watched the high-profile passer chosen below him in the NFL draft become the toast of Titletown.
And still, Alex Smith stands tall, determined to prove he belongs.
Smith may not be the rightful heir to Hall of Fame quarterbacks Joe Montana and Steve Young, but if he does what he plans to do in 2010 and leads the San Francisco 49ers back to the playoffs for the first time in eight years, he’ll win some hearts in San Francisco, and that will be one hell of a story.
As training camp approaches – the Niners get started at their Santa Clara practice facility on Friday, July 30 – Smith’s quest is one of the NFL’s more compelling narratives. If the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 draft can make it work in a place where his world collapsed like a poorly protected pocket, it will resonate with presumed washouts all over the league.
Some highly drafted quarterbacks have resurrected their careers after choppy beginnings – Jim Plunkett, Vinny Testaverde(notes), Tommy Maddox and Trent Dilfer(notes) are examples – but all have done it after leaving their original franchises. Smith, who had every logical reason to flee the Bay Area, has a chance to complete an unlikely comeback at the scene of his professional implosion.
“It’s pretty amazing,” says Dilfer, Smith’s friend and former 49ers teammate and now an ESPN analyst. “It speaks a lot to Alex – to his resolve, his humility and willingness to stick it out. And it speaks a lot to the 49ers’ organizational guts, that they’re willing to swim upstream a bit and don’t have to do what everybody else does.”
To be fair, the Titans’ Vince Young(notes) and the Cardinals’ Matt Leinart(notes) are attempting similar rebounds for their respective franchises in 2010. But even with the off-field drama that helped tarnish Young’s rep in Tennessee, neither of the 2006 first-rounders bottomed out quite as miserably as Smith did from 2007-08, when he publicly feuded with then-San Francisco coach Mike Nolan, lost an offseason competition to J.T. O’Sullivan(notes) and Shaun Hill(notes) and missed a season-and-a-half with a pair of shoulder injuries that required surgery.
Eighteen months ago, the notion of Smith staying with the Niners was almost laughable.
“There are definitely times I thought about leaving, especially when I got injured that second year in a row ,” Smith said in a recent interview. “It was just a frustrating time for me. I really felt like part of me could walk away and make a fresh start. But there was unfinished business. I guess it all came down to that feeling that I wasn’t ready to go down that road.”
If Smith had wanted to rationalize his demise, there were plenty of talking points at his disposal. After operating almost exclusively out of the shotgun formation in coach Urban Meyer’s spread offense while leading Utah to an undefeated 2004 season and Fiesta Bowl victory, Smith left college after his junior year and was snatched up first overall in the ’05 draft by Niners coach and de facto general manager Mike Nolan, who chose him over Aaron Rodgers(notes), a player who had thrived in a pro-style offense at nearby Cal.
More than most, Smith could have used at least a season of watching from the sidelines before being summoned into action for a struggling team. Instead, he became a starter scarcely a month into his rookie year and played 11 games, completing just 50.9 percent of his passes and throwing one touchdown against 11 interceptions.
Yet in Smith’s second season, he made an appreciable leap under new offensive coordinator Norv Turner (he replaced Mike McCarthy, who got the Packers’ head coaching job and, ultimately, a chance to help mold Rodgers into a budding star). Under Turner’s tutelage, Smith became the first Niners quarterback to play every snap in a season, improving his completion percentage to 58.1 and throwing the same amount of TD passes (16) as interceptions. He also led San Francisco to two victories in its final three games, including a come-from-behind, overtime triumph in Denver that kept the Broncos from making the playoffs.
“Everyone’s rookie year is tough, and when you have the circumstances of everything they were going through from a talent standpoint, it makes it tougher,” recalled Turner, now the Chargers’ head coach. “Going into Alex’s second year we tried to figure out what he did best and limit him to that and let him go do it, and he had some consistency. The more he does something, over and over, the better he gets. There were four or five games where he played his best in the fourth quarter and led us on big drives, and things were looking up.”
But in February of 2007, the Chargers stunned the football world by firing Marty Schottenheimer, who had led them to a 14-2 regular season in ’06. It was a fortuitous development for Turner, who in his third opportunity dispelled the stigma that he was a standout NFL coordinator who couldn’t cut it as a head coach, but a ruinous one for Smith, who would end up having five offensive coordinators in his first five seasons.
“Yeah, no question it was hard [when Turner took the Chargers job],” Smith said. “Norv was someone I really understood and identified with, and it just really hit me when he left. My rookie year was a blur. Coach McCarthy, I can’t even imagine what he had to go through with a rookie quarterback coming from the system I came from and trying to make it work. In year two Norv was the guy who kind of opened my eyes. In the second half of the season, I really started to build that confidence.”
In 2007 Smith’s professional life began to unravel. On the third play of the Niners’ fourth game he suffered a separated throwing shoulder, and he sat out the subsequent two games. When he returned, he endured three miserable starts before shutting it down for the season, ultimately undergoing surgery in December. Following his final game, in the midst of a season-destroying, eight-game losing streak, Smith told reporters his shoulder was “killing” him. Nolan publicly contradicted the quarterback, claiming Smith’s health was “fine,” and their relationship appreciably suffered.
Some Niners teammates began to regard Smith as soft – a few reportedly took to referring to him as “The Lion” – and in December the quarterback went public with his frustration, telling the San Jose Mercury News that Nolan had tried to “undermine” him in the locker room.
“I’ve been through some major, major dysfunction in my career,” said Dilfer, who replaced Smith in the lineup that season, “and this ranked in the top three. Mike just made a mistake. He was trying to harden a kid and used poor judgment. There were a lot of negative things going on around Alex, and nobody was slapping him on the ass saying, ‘You’re doing a great job, hang in there.’ ”
Did Nolan’s suggestion that the young quarterback lacked toughness sting deeply? “No question,” Smith said. “Especially when you pride yourself on that in the first place. And then to have it thrown in your face, it’s hard to take. In college, Urban laid it all out there. There was no agenda. It was about winning football games. It was much simpler. There were some things here that were different.”
Nolan surprisingly kept his job for the ’08 season, declaring that Smith and Hill would wage a training-camp battle. But new offensive coordinator Mike Martz staged a bizarre, three-way training-camp competition that seemed stacked against both passers, with journeyman J.T. O’Sullivan emerging as the starter.
That wasn’t nearly the most trying thing that Smith experienced that summer. In August he learned that his closest friend, David Edwards, had committed suicide.
“That was really the low point of my life,” Smith recalled. “Absolutely, it [changed me]. After that I was determined that I wasn’t going to let anything outside of my control, or anything negative out there, affect my mindset. When you’re a No. 1 pick, you can’t help it – you’re trying to please everybody. From that point on I wasn’t going to do it anymore.”
Three days after Edwards’ death, the quarterback broke a bone in his throwing shoulder and ended up on season-ending injured reserve. Nolan was fired that October and replaced by Mike Singletary, and it looked like Smith would be relocating at season’s end. Due to make salaries of $9.625 million and $15.05 million over the final two years of his rookie contract, he was told by then-general manager Scot McCloughan he could remain if he accepted a significant pay cut, and logic suggested that the quarterback would balk at the request.
Yet Smith liked Singletary’s frankness and got assurances from McCloughan he’d have a legitimate chance to compete with Hill for a starting job. He renegotiated his deal downward, receiving just $7 million combined for 2009 and 2010, according to a source, and got back in the ring to take another swing.
Said Dilfer: “Everybody around him wanted him to go. He could’ve made waaaay more money elsewhere, trust me. He told me, ‘I’ve got enough money. It’s not [the 49ers’] fault. It’s not my fault. It’s a combination. I want to make this thing right.’”
It might not have been a traditional show of toughness, but many people close to the quarterback believe Smith’s decision was analogous to standing tall in the pocket against an unrelenting pass rush.
“He’s an unbelievably competitive guy,” Turner says. “Physically, he put himself at risk at times because he was too tough. He’d try to run through somebody when he shouldn’t have. Obviously, he’s shown he’s got good mental toughness because he keeps coming back. He’s a very persistent guy.”
Said Dilfer: “I’ll say this about Alex: I don’t think he’s one of the most talented guys in the league. But Alex Smith is as physically and mentally tough as anybody I’ve been around. He was 175 pounds and led Utah to the Fiesta Bowl and almost won the Heisman. He’s not first [overall]-pick talented, but he’s got first-pick makeup.
“When it came time to decide to stay, I think he said, ‘This is the way I prove it to everybody. The easiest thing would be to go get a fresh start. That’s what 31 other guys would do. I’m going to tough it out.’ ”
Smith, who is close friends with Hill (the two were in one another’s wedding parties), lost out to his buddy in a training-camp competition last summer. But Smith played well off the bench in a late-October defeat to the Texans and started the final 10 games of the season, completing 60.5 percent of his passes for 18 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
In March the 49ers signed David Carr(notes) – another former No. 1 overall pick who washed out with his original team, the Texans – as Smith’s backup and traded Hill to the Lions. With the Niners having emerged as a trendy favorite to win the NFC West in the wake of former Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner’s(notes) retirement, Smith has a chance to complete one of the most unlikely paths to local adulation that any quarterback has ever taken. Then again, if he fails or gets injured, relocation almost certainly looms.
“Make no mistake about it – it has to happen this year,” Dilfer said. “And I think Alex likes that; he welcomes the challenge. If Alex Smith wins a playoff game with this team, he should be revered for his resolve, and the organization should be commended beyond belief for allowing him to prove his toughness and resilience. It’s everything that’s right about sports. It’s the way things should be but never are. Everybody should root for this.”
Sometimes, the endings we don’t see coming are the happiest of all.