Benching Alex Smith Is the Ultimate Alex Smith Decision
So, it's a slap in the face that I've spent seven years watching Smith smartly brace himself for impending sacks, electing to take the yardage loss rather than risk interceptions with dicey throws or injuries with daring evasion moves. When Smith gets pressured after dropping back, I wince, because I know he's gonna do something smart to get out of the play safely. Rather than provide me with a Sunday afternoon escape, he forces me to suffer flashbacks to times when I didn't negotiate a higher salary because I was gun-shy, or times when I didn't sack up and just ask a crush out because it "wasn't the right time." Watching Smith play it safe with dump-off passes and goofy premature slides conjures up memories of years I wasted working resume-padding internships or doing shitty assignments because doing them was easier than fighting them.
Smith's amazing statistics make his extremely boring style even more frustrating. Over the past two seasons, he set a 49ers franchise record by going 249 throws without an interception, and in the two games leading up to his injury, he threw for a video game-ish 92 percent completion percentage. Those are numbers with which you don't argue. On paper, Smith is the kind of quarterback around which you build a Super Bowl team.
However, as most dudes like me know, if paper told the real story behind things, resumes would get you every job you applied for.
For example, the summer before my senior year of high school, I was captain of my football team, in good enough shape that summer that I'd win the senior superlative for "best body" with classmate and future starlet Jamie Chung, and I was dating a knockout-gorgeous girl named Sara.
On paper, as you can see, it was a pretty fantastic summer. Looking at Smith's fantastic numbers the past two seasons reminds me of that summer. On paper.
Beyond the paper, though, what I remember most about that summer is killing my chances with Sara by being so nervous about impressing her that I had to pull my car over to throw up on two of our dates. I remember spending three months dealing with an itchy red rash on my chest after misguidedly shaving it to show off my pecs, and immersing myself in football to avoid dealing with the fact that my father spent July and August getting failed stem-cell transplants and preparing to die of cancer.
Watching Smith play for the last two years reminds me of the real stories behind that summer. No matter how good the guy looks on paper, if you're a Niners fan who has regularly watched Smith play, you know he's not the player his numbers make him out to be. He's an over-thinking, jittery-under-pressure disappointment.
And after the third or fourth beer and the ninth or 10th four-yard completion by Smith, that fact can remind you of some of your own shortcomings.
Smith plays football like the jerk in your poker group plays his cards. He sandbags until he gets a full house, and even then, he restrains the urge to go all in. This strategy, of course, is inarguably intelligent. Hell, it's even begrudgingly respectable and will likely get you into the final two in most games. However, it leaves other players wondering why a guy even bothers gambling if he doesn't intend to take chances. Nobody at the table bought in to watch some jackass sandbag over a $25 pot.
And, like a sandbagger is only as good as his cards allow him to be, Smith has only been as good as his coaches have led him to be.
Smith was a flat-out shitty quarterback under Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary. You can't argue this. It's also inarguable that those guys were shitty coaches. Now Smith has got
Harbaugh, a great coach, and, suddenly, he's a damn good quarterback -- but he's still not great.
Two years ago, when I got married and finally moved my things out of my mom's house, I found a copy of the San Francisco Chronicle I saved from the day after the 49ers won the Super Bowl in 1994. The front-page photo is Steve Young holding the Lombardi trophy like nothing in the universe had existed before or would exist after that hunk of sterling silver. I held onto that yellowed piece of newsprint for nearly 20 years because of Young's facial expression.
It seems worth noting that it was stored in the same box as my comic book collection.
It's a symbol of the kind of thing a young man aspires to and, apparently, a middle-aged man talks about. It's the face of a man who has sold everything out to obtain what he wants most in life and received it.
It's also, of course, the face of a man who had to retire early because he suffered too many concussions scrambling for extra yards.
Sad but true, that's exactly what made Steve Young a great quarterback. That's why Niners fans wear their Steve Young jerseys to this day. Conversely, it's why Niners fans were so quick to burn their Alex Smith jerseys two years ago during the lowest point of his career.
Fans don't live to watch smart decisions.
Unless, of course, it's the coach. It's the coach's job to make smart decisions. We all wanted Harbaugh to do the smart thing. And he did that by benching Smith for Colin Kaepernick. There was potentially a lot of good story behind starting Alex Smith - loyalty, redemption, triumph over injury, all that. That would have been the interesting decision.
However, Harbaugh pulled an Alex Smith and didn't let his guts sway him. He went with the smart decision. He played it safe and started the kid who was bigger, stronger and faster. He went with the guy who fits the mold of an NFL quarterback, the guy who the fans are clamoring for, and the quarterback of the future his team needs to tout as they move forward with a new stadium that is teetering on unpopularity.
Harbaugh made the Alex Smith decision by benching Alex Smith. And dudes like me are
grateful for that.