What a career.
As Alex Smith retires, that’s not a phrase being thrown around a lot. That’s a sentiment usually reserved for sure thing Hall of Famers when they retire, and despite an accomplished 16 year career Alex Smith is not that. Playing in the pass-happy modern NFL, Smith only passed for 4,000 yards once and never threw more than 26 touchdowns, both in his final year in Kansas City. He made it to the Super Bowl once back in 2012, but was a back-up and didn’t touch the field; as a starter he made one NFC championship game in 2011, losing to the Giants during (much worse quarterback) Eli Manning’s 2nd improbable Super Bowl run. Even when he was the 1st overall pick, the big story of the 2005 draft was (much better quarterback) Aaron Rodgers falling as far as he did. Alex Smith was a good quarterback, but there was always something sexier happening in the NFL.
Despite all this Alex Smith had one of the most unique careers ever and you can’t really tell the story of the NFL without him.
As I already mentioned, Smith was the 1st overall pick back in 2005. The 24 hour news cycle was still finding its feet and Facebook was just a year old. Even considering that, it always seemed like he avoided the scrutiny usually put on number one picks. And that’s because Smith did what so many other people can’t: he stayed in his lane. He did what he could and never tried to do what he knew he couldn’t. The 49ers made their trip to the NFC championship in 2011 relying on the enormous quads of Frank Gore and an elite defense, not the arm of their Quarterback. But unlike most 1st overall picks, Smith seemed comfortable in his role. And at least for a while the 49ers seemed comfortable with his role.
That all changed when Smith left the 2nd quarter of a game against the then St. Louis Rams with a concussion, and the taller, faster, stronger quarterback San Francisco had drafted a year ago came in. But the game ended in a tie, so it seemed like after a week or two of recovery Smith would be back as the starter. After all, the Niners had started out 6-2 with Smith under center with a win over Aaron Rodgers’ Packers in the opener and a 2-0 record in the NFC West.
I remember Colin Kaepernick’s 1st start really well. I was raised in a family of Bears fans, and they’d started out the season 7-1, the best the team had looked since losing in the Super Bowl. In their 9th game the Bears had lost a defensive dogfight against the also 7-1 Houston Texans, the most hyped game of the season up to that point that some even called a Super Bowl preview (thank god they were wrong, Jay Cutler and Matt Schaub in the Super Bowl is definitely how that season played out in the darkest timeline). So even though there was a back up starting for the other team- Cutler coincidentally out with a concussion as well- expectations for the 2nd round pick making his first start against the top team in the NFC were pretty low.
And I think that was part of the recipe for Alex Smith’s benching. Turns out, Colin Kaepernick had a cannon, and at least that night a pretty accurate one, completing 69% of his passes. After a loss to the Rams and 2 weeks removed from Smith’s concussion, the quarterback controversy was every A-block on all the talking head shows. But Kaepernick had 84 yards on just 9 rushes in that loss. Yes, Smith was “sneaky athletic” (white & fast), but up to that point his career high rushing was 36 yards. Colin Kaepernick defied expectations and he did it with style. As a Saints hater at the time (a story for another day), I’d grown to like Alex Smith after the divisional round victory the year before, but I loved watching Kaepernick play. He was exciting, dynamic, and it felt like he was doing something special every play. The potential was obvious. For a high-strung coach like Jim Harbaugh that was too tantalizing to pass up.
Kaepernick would have a very up & down few years as the starter in San Francisco, but he’s of course so important to the story of the NFL because he brought his protests of injustice occurring off the field to the sideline. Whether or not you fall on the right or wrong side of that argument- yes there’s a wrong side- you can’t deny his impact on the NFL. Particularly after the tangerine that used to live in the White House came after him, and the story became so big lots of fence-sitters on the controversy were forced to pick a side. For a while it seemed dicey, but following the George Floyd protests last year the NFL showed it was on the right side, and professional athletes across all sports have held up Kaepernick as an inspiration for their own activism. Kaepernick deserves all the credit for his brave stance against police brutality- a stance that’s undeniably cost him millions- but he wouldn’t have had the platform if Alex Smith doesn’t get benched.
Meanwhile, the Kansas City Chiefs were a talented mess in 2012, going 2-14 despite having 6 Pro-Bowlers on their roster- the most by any team that missed the playoffs. They needed a steady hand, and they managed to pick one off the scrap heap after the 49ers went all in on Kaepernick as their franchise quarterback and traded Smith. Alex Smith led the Chiefs to a 9-0 start, an 11-5 record, and a 38-10 lead over the Indianapolis Colts in a Wild Card game. It’s another game, I remember pretty well. Andrew Luck’s 2nd playoff game, and maybe the most iconic game of his unfortunately short career. The Chiefs seemed unstoppable in the 1st half, putting up 31 points. Early in the 3rd quarter, Smith threw his 4th touchdown as he was putting together the best game of his career. But then Luck took over, leading the Colts on 5 touchdown drives and finishing with 443 yards passing. The Chiefs managed just two field goals after Smith’s 4th touchdown pass, good but not quite good enough. They lost 45-44, despite Smith’s career game. The early playoff exit certainly wasn’t on him- with human cheat code Jamaal Charles injured the only reason the Chiefs had any chance at all was because of Smith’s performance. But in a game where the Chiefs kind of needed their quarterback to carry them, a full game of his ceiling hadn’t been good enough to beat a quarter and a half of peak Andrew Luck.
After narrowly missing the playoffs in 2014, the Chiefs saw this ceiling again two years straight in the playoffs, being knocked out in close games against superior quarterbacks: Tom Brady in 2015 and Ben Roethlisberger in 2016. With the 10th pick in the draft following their latest playoff disappointment, GM John Dorsey had a clear choice to make: continue building a roster around Smith that was good enough to not need him to be more than he was, or move on from his veteran quarterback.
He kinda picked the second option. The quarterback the Chiefs drafted was talented but there seemed to be unanimous agreement in the league he wouldn’t be ready to start year one. So Alex Smith basically had one more year to prove he was the quarterback Kansas City could win a Super Bowl with…all while being asked to mentor the guy who would be taking his job if he didn’t.
And he rose to the occasion… sort of. In what would end up being his final full season as a starter, Smith had his best year yet. He put up that 4,000 yard 26 touchdown season I mentioned before and only threw 5 picks. Yet Kansas City was still playing on Wild Card weekend, and even though Smith was the better quarterback on the field this time, the Chiefs lost a close game to the Titans.
I don’t need to tell you about the quarterback Alex Smith lost his job to- turns out he’s pretty good. And now it seems ridiculous the Chiefs were able to get him at 10. But if you paid any attention to that draft at the time, you know no one was predicting Patrick Mahomes to be Patrick Mahomes. The player comp. that really stuck with him through the process was Brett Favre- incredible arm talent that could make any throw but would try to make every throw. We’ll never know for sure how well Patrick Mahomes would’ve played as a rookie starter, but everyone from Andy Reid to Mahomes himself credits Alex Smith as a huge part of the future MVP’s success.
On top of all of this, the reaction around Smith’s retirement seems to mostly be reflections on his last couple years spent with Washington. It’s been discussed ad nauseum, so I don’t feel the need or want to go into it here, but Smith’s return to the field is an incredible story. As time moves forward more and more context gets shed off of sports history, and eventually the principal characters and statistics are all that’s left. Those of us who watched it unfold will remember the fleshed out version of Alex Smith’s career, but it seems like Smith will be remembered for his comeback player of the year winning final year more than anything.
Or will he?
If you were at all familiar with Alex Smith before reading this, I’m sure you’ve noticed there’s a moniker I’ve been dancing around using: “game manager”. And I’ll be honest, it wasn’t easy. Smith’s name has been so intrinsically attached to the idea of a high floor, low ceiling quarterback since Kaepernick played the foil to that idea that telling my brain not to use that phrase was harder than I thought. He could take a good team far, agonizingly close even. You weren’t going to lose because Alex Smith was your quarterback, but you weren’t going to win because he was your quarterback either. He was a game manager.
And because this tag stuck so well, no other quarterback has been used as a player comp. in the last ten years more than Alex Smith. Good not great quarterback? “He’s an Alex Smith, a game manager.” Not the best arm, but he takes care of the ball? “He reminds me of Alex Smith”. Half the quarterbacks in the league are Alex Smith clones apparently.
Is it lazy? Kind of. Do a lot of fans inaccurately use the comp. to make themselves feel good about a mediocre quarterback? Yeah. Much more mediocre quarterbacks have played in the NFL and much more mediocre quarterbacks have even won Super Bowls (sorry not sorry Eli), so Alex Smith’s name being synonymous with mediocrity can give you the wrong impression about his career. But we don’t talk about mediocre quarterbacks when they’re retiring. We are talking about Alex Smith. Not one of the best quarterbacks of all time. But one of the best game managers of all time. And somehow, that may be his true legacy.