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Alex Smith: The Journey to Becoming The Chiefs' Quarterback

Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Alex Smith officially became the quarterback of the Kansas City Chiefs on March 12, 2013 and he hasn’t looked back.

It has been a long, hard road to get to this point. The fanfare his departure from the San Francisco 49ers received was full of mixed emotions. Many 49ers fans were as happy to see the oft maligned Smith leave the “City by the Bay” as Chiefs fans were to see Matt Cassel head north to Minnesota. Yet, others were sad to see him go, and thought he was never given a fair shake, despite the fact he spent eight seasons with the the 49ers.

Smith produced a playoff winning season in 2011, had an overall 90.7 quarterback rating (the highest in his career to that point) and

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led his team to within a fumble of a trip to the Superbowl. He then followed that up with a 2012 season where he boasted a 104.1 QBR and an incredible 70.2 percent completion rating. Still, fans of the other “red and gold” team, cheered when he was replaced by backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick after suffering a concussion in week 10 of the 2012 season. Fans continued to cheer as the man who started the season carrying Smith’s clipboard, carried the team to the 2012 Superbowl, ultimately losing to the Baltimore Ravens.

Many 49ers fans had grown disenfranchised with the man who was selected with the No. 1 overall draft pick in the 2005 draft. Smith was taken by the 49ers to lead the once great franchise back into relevancy. They had fallen so far from the days of Joe Montana and Steve Young to the bottom of the NFC West, the division considered by many to be the worst in football at that time, that those “glory days” of the 80’s and 90’s were a distant memory. However, Smith fell into the same trap that many rookie quarterbacks fell into, which was he was given the keys to the brand new Ferrari when he should have been given the keys to a used Yugo.

Smith’s rookie season was atrocious. It’s easy to see why he fell out of favor with the fans in San Francisco as well as the coaching staff of, then head coach, Mike Nolan. Dealing with an injury, Smith started the season as a $24 million guaranteed backup quarterback.  He didn’t actually get his first start until week five, and he threw five interceptions. He was far from the quarterback of the future the ‘Niners were hoping for when they drafted him with their No. 1 overall pick.

Smith’s second season in the league was marginally better, but he only continued to cement the moniker of “game manager” that would follow him throughout his career. Smith spent the offseason and then preseason learning a new offensive scheme under the second offensive coordinator of his career. Learning under future Superbowl winning coach Mike McCarthy as a rookie, Smith then tried to pick up the offense of future San Diego Charger head man, Norv Turner as McCarthy left the team to lead the Green Packers to the Superbowl. Smith finished the season with as many touchdowns as interceptions at 16, and the 49ers finished the season at 7-9.

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Smith battled injury and another offensive coordinator in his third season with the 49ers ,and only played in seven of the 16 games that year. He regressed in every statistical category, only throwing two touchdowns in those seven games. The man who was supposed to save the franchise was in danger of being run out of town on a rail. Fans are forgiving, but the NFL stands for “not for long” when you’re not winning – and Alex Smith and the 49ers were most definitely not winning.

At the start of the 2008 season, Smith took the biggest slap in a face a former No. 1 overall draft pick can take. He was expected to compete for his job in training camp.

Smith lost the battle and began the 2008 as the backup QB to J.T. O’Sullivan. This was due partly to O’Sullivan’s knowledge of the new offensive system being taught by the team’s fourth offensive coordinator in as many years. After the Niners offense failed to perform in the 2007 season, offensive coordinator Jim Hostler was fired and Mike Martz was brought in. Alex stayed behind O’Sullivan on the depth chart until the 49ers placed him on the injured reserve list due to a complication with his shoulder from the previous year’s injury. Many thought this would at least be the end of Smith’s tenure with the 49ers – a fact which many San Francisco fans cheered – but Smith restructured his contract after the firing of head coach, Mike Nolan. Alex Smith would return for another season in the red and gold of the San Francisco 49ers.

Smith’s clash with head coach Mike Nolan became something of legend in San Francisco. In fact, years later, Nolan was still not shy about saying he should have dumped Smith earlier. In this quote from Nolan in 2010 when he was the defensive coordinator for the Miami Dolphins, Nolan had this to say about Shaun Hill, the man who replaced Smith on and off again.

“He’s a very good quarterback. I always thought he was good. I would admit to making a mistake not making him a starter at the end. The last year I was there I should have [switched QBs] because he’s a baller.”

Smith didn’t take all of Nolan’s (some would say unwarranted and extreme, some would say abuse) criticism sitting down. In 2007, just before Smith was put on his season ending IR, Mike Nolan allegedly informed the ‘Niners locker room that Smith was using his injuries as an excuse for his “poor play.” This led to a rare outburst by the quarterback in which he rebuffed the statements by Nolan.

“I think if (my teammates) would have heard what I actually said out there that day, it wouldn’t have been an issue. But all of a sudden Nolan spins it as if I was making excuses for an injury. What I really felt like was, ‘Yeah, I tried to play on it. And that was my decision and obviously I wasn’t playing well enough.”

Regardless, with Nolan gone, Smith would, perhaps, get the fresh start in San Francisco he thought he deserved.

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Former Superbowl winning player and interim coach Mike Singletary was hired to take over the head coaching job full-time for the 2009 season. With Singletary, came a fifth offensive coordinator in as many years for the team. A renewed (and ultimately surgically repaired) Smith returned, ready to compete for the job of starting quarterback. While Smith would begin the Singletary administration on the bench, he was thrust into the starting role in week 7, when the 49ers played the Houston Texans and incumbent starter, Shaun Hill was benched for poor playing performance. Smith would start for the rest of the season and led the 49ers to their best record, 8 – 8, since the 2002 season.

The 2010 season started with the retention of offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye, which was the first time since 2003 the 49ers had the same OC for two consecutive seasons. However, after a disastrous 0 – 3 start, Raye was fired, and Smith was forced to learn under a sixth OC in as many years. The team and Smith (to a smaller degree) regressed in the 2010 season. The overall record fell below .500 again, with the team finishing at 6 -10, marking the 10th season in a row the team failed to finish above the .500 mark. Singletary was fired at the end of the season after alienating his locker room and the 49ers front office. To say Smith’s future with the franchise was uncertain would be an understatement.

The 2011 season was the turnaround year for the San Francisco 49ers, but more importantly, for Smith. His restructured deal expired at the end of the 2010 season, and with the player lockout putting a stop on all negotiations, Smith began the 2011 NFL league year as an unsigned player. Despite this fact, and despite the fact that Smith’s family wanted him to leave San Francisco, Alex organized team workouts with fellow players that quickly became known as “Camp Alex.”

When the lockout was lifted, and the new collective bargaining agreement signed, Alex did his own signing, re-upping with the ‘Niners for one more year. With former quarterback Jim Harbaugh taking the reins in the Bay City, there was hope that Smith could finally succeed. A quote from Harbaugh after he had the chance to evaluate the 2010 49ers on film, summed up his feelings about Alex Smith.

“So excited, yeah, I’m going to say it, I’ve been studying Alex Smith and watching him and I believe that Alex Smith can be a winning quarterback in the National Football League. I’m excited to work with him, get to know him.”

Smith was now on his third head coach and learning his seventh offensive system since joining the league in 2005. Many 49ers fans (and now Chiefs fans) biggest complaint about Smith is that he hasn’t been able to bring his team back from a deficit.  While that statement may be true for the beginning of his career, in 2011 Smith set the single season 49ers’ franchise record for most game winning 4th quarter drives in a single season.This is on a team that has a #16 jersey worn by Joe “Cool” Montana hanging in from its rafters.

Smith’s accuracy and ball protection also improved in the 2011 season, as he threw only five interceptions the whole year. That, by the way, is also a 49ers record. Those records weren’t just for show, however. Smith put that team on his back and led them to the playoffs for the first time since 2002 with a 13-3 record.

It was during the playoffs that Smith really proved his ability to reach down and find that something special that only championship quarterbacks have. In, what can only be described as a shootout under the lights of Candlestick Park, the 49ers and the New Orleans Saints played one of the most exciting games I’ve ever seen. Smith had just retaken the lead from the Drew Brees led Saints with an electrifying 28 yard run up the left sideline with 4:02 left on the clock. This score put the 49ers up 29-24 and many thought sealed the game for the Niners. After all, Brees would have to take the field and defeat the stout San Francisco defense, who many said got the team to the playoffs – rather than Smith.

However, Brees took the field and did what Drew Brees does, hitting tight end Jimmy Graham on a 66 yard strike to go ahead 30 – 29. After converting the two-point conversion, the wind – and most of the hope – was sucked out of Candlestick Park like an extinguished flame. It seemed not one fan in the crowd thought their “mediocre” quarterback could engineer a game winning drive to advance the team in the playoffs, even though he’d already done it a record six times that season.

Brees’ drive left 1:37 on the clock. It would truly be a “two-minute offense” the 49ers would have to run. After Kyle Williams returned the ensuing kickoff from five yards deep in the endzone to the 49ers 15 yard line, Smith went to work. Watching the video from that game is a sight to behold. Smith was the picture of the “calm, cool and collected” quarterback as he walked to the line for the first play. After moving through his reads, he found running Frank Gore open in the flat and manages a seven yard gain. With the clock still running, Smith – ever the field general – commanded his troops to the line and set off another play, finding Gore on a screen. That gave the 49ers an 11 yard gain and a first down. Lining up on their own 33 yard line, Smith tried for a deep shot to wide receiver Brent Swain. The ball fell just in front of a well covered Swain’s outstretched arms, stopping the clock. Smith huddled up the offense and called the next play, a 27 yard shot over the middle to tight end Vernon Davis, who turned up field and ran another 20 yards before being tackled at the New Orleans 20 yard line. Smith hurried his team to the line after the 47 yard gain and quickly found his sure handed running back, Gore for another quick six yards. Gore tried to make it out of bounds on the play, but was unable to. Smith, watching the clock wind down under 15 seconds, quickly moved the team to the line of scrimmage and spiked the ball, stopping the clock.

At this point, a coach who didn’t believe in his quarterback would have brought in the kicker. A field goal would have tied the game and given them a shot at overtime. That season, 49ers kicker David Akers was the highest scoring member of the team.

The 49ers had no time outs remaining and less than 15 seconds on the clock. But, in a show of faith (at least in that moment) Harbaugh let his quarterback try for the game winner. Sending his team to the line with the play, Smith dropped back and fired a missile to a double – nearly triple – covered Vernon Davis, who caught the ball, scoring the touchdown and sealing the 49ers victory. Call it channeling his inner Montana or Young (depending on your generation of 49ers fan), Smith had done what no one thought possible. He beat Drew Brees at his own game and won the game.

The culmination of that season was a trip to the NFC Championship game the following week, where the 49ers lost to the New York Giants after a fumble by 49ers kick returner, Kyle Williams. Though the season ended in disappointment, it was a huge improvement over the last nine years in San Francisco and hope was restored to the city and the team.

After the 2011 league year ended, Smith found himself a free agent once again. However, he wasn’t the only NFL QB who was testing the free agent market. Recently released Indianapolis Colts starter, Peyton Manning was in the unemployment line as well, and every owner and general manager from Nashville to New York was salivating at the chance to get their hands on him. The 49ers were no different.

When news broke that Harbaugh and his staff had secretly been courting Manning, and had even brought him to California for a private workout, Smith decided to look elsewhere for employment. After not seeing a lot of interest in the teams in need of a quarterback, and with Manning deciding to join the ranks of the AFC West and sign with the Denver Broncos, Smith eventually decided to re-sign with the 49ers on a three year deal worth about $8 million a year.

Smith did admit that the situation was “awkward” in a later interview, and said that the Manning interest was motivation for him to re-sign with the team.

“Certainly there are a lot of forms of motivation. I guess that’s there a little bit as far as motivation.”

Of course in the backlash of everything involving the perceived quarterback controversy, Harbaugh tried to back pedal and claimed that there was never any interest in Peyton Manning.

 “I’ve said it all along, Alex Smith has been our quarterback. There’s no scenario other than Alex choosing to sign with another team that we would have considered him not as our quarterback. It’s time to set the record straight. Alex Smith is our quarterback, was our quarterback and (we) had every intention of always bringing him back.”

Thus, that’s how the 2012 season began in San Francisco.

While the Kansas City Chiefs were beginning their worst season in franchise history, the Niners were starting their epic Superbowl run. Little did anyone know that the two teams’ destinies were linked, and the situation both teams would find themselves in at the end of the season would lead them to where they are now.

Despite having Smith firmly locked in, and Harbaugh’s claims that Alex was the man in San Francisco, the 49ers drafted Colin Kaepernick in the second round of the 2011 NFL Draft with the 36th overall pick. That, combined with the apparent (and well documented) interest in Peyton Manning in the 2012 offseason was a definite foreshadowing of what was to become of Alex Smith, despite what coach Harbaugh said in an interview.

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In week 10 of the 2012 season, injury struck Smith once again. He suffered a concussion in the first half against the St. Louis Rams and was removed from the game. Kaepernick replaced Smith and led the 49ers to a tie against the Rams. The following game, Smith was ruled ou,t and Kaepernick got the nod for the start — leading the 49ers to his first win. As luck (or the previously mentioned destiny) would have it, the game was on Monday Night Football against a tough Chicago Bears team, which Kaepernick carved up easily. This thrust the new San Francisco 49ers quarterback controversy into the national spotlight. However, the final blow to Smith’s time in San Francisco was the following week against the New Orleans Saints. Smith was cleared by doctors to play, but Harbaugh, in a departure from every interview and soundbite he’d given to that point, said Smith was not going to play and Kaepernick would remain the starter. Harbaugh was quick to say that the quarterback’s starting job was “week to week,” however, that would turn out to be lip service as well.

This frustrated Smith, and understandably so. Many Smith detractors say that Alex lost his starting job. This wasn’t the case at all, at least not in the traditional sense of the word. When a quarterback is benched in the NFL it is generally due to poor performance. However, at the time of his injury, Smith had completed 153 passes on 218 attempts, which was good for amazing 70.2 percent completion rate. His QBR was 104.1, the best of his career. Additionally, Smith had led his team to a 6-2 start, so poor play wasn’t the reason for his benching in San Francisco. Smith voiced his frustration shortly after the benching was made official.

“It stings the most because I really feel like there’s something special going on here. You sacrifice and you invest so much time. Like I said, I really feel like I hadn’t done anything but get a concussion to really to facilitate this. I feel like I was playing good football.”

Smith could have spent the rest of the 2012 season a bitter and angry man. But, in a true show of his professionalism, he didn’t. He helped bring the 49ers team together as much or more than when he was on the field. This, as much as Smith’s excellent play, was noticed by all of his teammates, as well as the man who once said there was no scenario in which Alex Smith wouldn’t be the starting quarterback.

“Alex has really helped coach Colin in meetings every single day. He coaches Colin now more than I do. That speaks volumes to how good a teammate Alex Smith is. It’s the best focus on unity and winning I’ve ever been a part of.”

This sentiment was echoed by the others in the 2012 49ers locker room as well. When Smith could have been the sledge hammer that drove the team apart, he was the glue that held them together. Frank Gore still spoke quite highly of his quarterback, even after the benching.

“I respect Alex so much. He’s been a pro. He still prepares and studies like he’s the starter. When Kaep comes to the sidelines, he tells him what he sees. Whatever happens, I just wish the best for Alex.”

As the season worked its way to the eventual Superbowl letdown for San Francisco, many knew that Smith would be traded. Being benched during the season because of a concussion is one thing, but starting the season on the bench with an $8 million a year contract and previous playoff success, was another entirely. Though no one knew where Smith would end up, there were only a couple of logical choices.

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Meanwhile, in Kansas City, the tides were turning as well. Gone was the iron handed (and hard headed) regime of Scott Pioli. Gone was the bumbling and barely comprehendible coaching of Romeo Crennel and Brian Dabol. Chiefs CEO Clark Hunt had brought in recently unemployed Philadelphia Eagles head coach Andy Reid to lead his team back to relevancy, just as 49ers owner Edward Bartolo Jr. brought in Harbaugh two years earlier. He followed that hiring with highly regarded Green Bay Packers personnel man, John Dorsey as the Chiefs new general manager.

Both Reid and Harbaugh (though light years apart in coaching style) have a couple of things in common. They both run a version of the West Coast Offense, and they are both renowned for the abilities as “Quarterback Whisperers.” Thus, it was no surprise that despite the quarterback needs of teams like the Arizona Cardinals, Minnesota Vikings, Jacksonville Jaguars, Cleveland Browns, Buffalo Bills and even the New York Jets, Reid and Dorsey were able to strike a deal a month and a half before it was able to be made public. After all, the first thing Reid and Dorsey did was evaluate the Chiefs quarterback meeting room – and it wasn’t pretty.

Reid and Dorsey know two things. In order for a team to have success, there must be a system in place, and the team must have a quarterback who can excel in that system. Coming into Kansas City, Reid brought his version of the WCO with him. That offense requires that the quarterback be able to execute extremely accurate short to mid level throws and be able to hit receivers in the “sweet spot” in order to allow them to get yards after the catch. In going after Smith, Reid knew exactly what he was getting.

“I loved him coming out [of the draft]. Like man this guy would be great in our offense. But we had one that was pretty good. I kept my ears open. Great locker room guy. [He] understands the game, has the physical tools. He’s won and he has a certain mentality. But he also has been through tough times and good times and hasn’t changed. He has the work ethic and presence. That’s why.”

In probably the smartest move Dorsey did in the trade that brought Smith to The Fountain City, Smith wasn’t given a contract extension. Unlike the Pioli regime ,who brought in the previous Kansas City Chiefs starting quarterback Matt Cassel on a trade with the New England Patriots and then gave him a huge seven year deal, Smith is essentially playing for his supper in KC. If things don’t pan out with the signal caller after two years remaining on his contract, the Chiefs leadership aren’t’ stuck with the choice of playing him because they can’t afford not to, or cutting him and incurring a huge debt to their salary cap.

However, all comparisons and mentions of Smith and Cassel should end with that paragraph. Though many would like to assign Smith the moniker of “Cassel 2.0” to go along with his title of “game manager” if you look at the progress the two quarterbacks have made, they’re going in opposite directions. While Smith has continually improved on every season, Cassel has gotten worse.

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Many critics of Smith are quick to point out that he didn’t lead the team to the playoffs during the 2011 season. They like to say that the only reason Smith had the performance that he did was due to a strong running game and a stout defense. I’ll let that last sentence sink in for a moment. Sound like another team you’ve seen play recently?

The 2011 season was Smith’s last full season as a starter in San Francisco and perhaps his best, in regards to showing what kind of quarterback he is. But, as everyone knows, football isn’t just about what the quarterback can do, but what the team can do. Since so many like to say that the 2011 season had nothing to do with Smith, and everything to do with the rest of the team, let’s take a look at who made up that team.

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On offense, the two key players were tight end Vernon Davis and running back, Frank Gore. Davis was perhaps the most important weapon on offense (at least in regards to who Smith was looking to) as the duo developed a very special rapport. In fact, that year, Davis caught six of Smith’s 17 regular season touchdowns. Gore has been a prolific back since entering the league, and the 2011 season was no different. Though the Chiefs have no answer for the question “who is the Vernon Davis of the team?” they have a pretty prolific running back themselves in Jamaal Charles. Getting the ball from Smith to Charles seems to be well ingrained into the Chiefs’ 2013 plans as Charles is the only member of the team to score a touchdown in each of the first four games.

Switching over to the defensive side of the ball, the similarities between the 2011 49ers and 2013 Chiefs becomes a bit clearer. The 49ers pass rushers that year featured linebackers Aldon Smith and Ahamad Brooks. Though it was just Aldon Smith’s rookie year, he ended the season with 14 sacks. His 2013 Chiefs equivalent, Justin Houston, has half that in four games. Other comparisons that can be made are between the 49ers linebacker (and defensive leader) Patrick Willis and the Chiefs own “quarterback on D” Derrick Johnson. Both have similar experience in the league and both have similar stat lines. Saying one is better than the other is an exercise in futility. To say they mirror each other quite well would be a bit more accurate.

Both teams have a “lights out” defense and playmakers on offense around Smith. Both teams have coaches who value and favor their quarterback over all else.

So, what’s the difference?

A fresh start.

Smith comes into Kansas City with a clean slate. The dark clouds of past mistakes are erased with a new fan base. Winning cures everything – especially for a franchise and fans who have been deprived of winning football for so long.

Smith can throw the short passes and never have more than 250 yards passing and two touchdowns per game, and as long as the result at the end of the game is a “W”, Chiefs fans won’t care. Though, some will say they do.

Some will scream for a “franchise quarterback” (whatever that is these days) who can throw 500 yards a game and six touchdowns (because that’s the only two stats that makes you an “elite” quarterback.) If that’s what you’re expecting out of Smith, I’m here to tell you, you’re in for a disappointment. But, don’t just take my word for it. Here’s Smith’s take on passing yardage:

“I could absolutely care less on yards per game. I think that is a totally overblown stat because if you’re losing games in the second half, guess what, you’re like the Carolina Panthers and you’re going no-huddle the entire second half. Yeah, Cam Newton threw for a lot of 300-yard games. That’s great. You’re not winning, though.”

Reid has proven he knows what he’s doing with quarterbacks, whether it’s bringing rookies into the league (Donovan McNabb) or refurbishing quarterbacks nobody else thought could make it happen anymore (Michael Vick). Smith has the chops to take this 2013 Kansas City Chiefs team to the same destination he had the 2011 San Francisco 49ers on before the train was derailed by an untimely turnover.

Smith is driven. He is driven like perhaps no quarterback in the history of the Kansas City Chiefs has been driven. He was a No. 1 overall draft pick. He’s been booed by his own fans, called a bust by everyone from ESPN to the hometown press. His own coach all but called him a malingerer and questioned his toughness in the locker room, effectively undermining whatever leadership position he may have had on the team.

Smith was a part of a proud tradition of quarterbacks in San Francisco. It’s not easy playing in the shadow of #16 and #8. Those are big shoes to fill. Smith did everything he could in 2011 to take his team to the big game, only to return the following season to learn his team was shopping for the services of another quarterback, and then eventually replacing him. Not because of poor play, but because of injury. To be so close to the Superbowl in 2011 and then watch the game from the sidelines the next year does something to a man. It either destroys them or makes them stronger.

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Smith is all about proving everyone wrong.

Oh, he’s driven all right. But, it’s a new ball game in Kansas City. In a game sometimes seeded in superstition and tradition, the last time a Chiefs’ quarterback won his first four starts, he was another San Francisco cast off. The last time the Chiefs won a playoff game was with that guy too.

Talk about living in the shadow. He can’t seem to shake it.

Still, Smith can be that guy. He’s got the pieces around him.

Now, it’s up to him.

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