Alex Smith: Footballs’ Unluckiest
His undefeated collegiate team was robbed the chance to play for a National Title, but he helped launch his coach into the national spotlight. Being the 1st round pick sent him to a dysfunctional franchise. Once his franchise finally got it together, 8 season in, he lost his starting job from a fluke injury and was forced to sit on the bench at the Super Bowl. He was then traded, where he led his team to a perfect first half of the season. That team drafted a young buck they thought might be the next best thing and traded him to a competitive team. There he would tragically and gruesomely suffer one of the worst injuries in NFL history.
Unlucky? To say the least. This is the story of Alex Smith.
A 34-year-old should not have had that twisted, unfortunate professional football life, but Alex Smith who was born in in 1984 in Bremerton, Washington sure has. Bremerton is a suburb of Seattle but he grew up in Southern California in the town of La Mesa. At Helix High School, outside of San Diego, not only was he one of the best football players in the area he was the high school class president and an AP student. On his high school team was Reggie Bush, who would later win the Heisman for USC (it has since been taken away).
After high school, Smith would elect to go play at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Now, the U is part of the PAC-12, but at the time they were the top echelon of what is considered the Mid-Majors in the Mountain West Conference. The mid majors had never been invited to a BCS Bowl since it’s inception in the 1990s.
He got his first chance to start for the Utes in 2002 as a sophmore. In 2003, Urban Meyer would take the Head Coaching job and the Meyer-Smith team would be dynamite. Smith would pass for over 2,000 yards for the next 2 seasons. In 2003 together they won the Mountain West. He would also be elected a finalist to the Heisman Trophy where he would lose to fellow quarterback, Matt Leinart.
In 2004, Smith’s senior season, they would go undefeated on the season, 11-0 and be the first mid-major program to be admitted to a BCS Bowl. In the Fiesta Bowl, Smith and Meyer’s Utes beat the 8-3 University of Pittsburg Panthers resoundingly, 35 to 7. Smith had a 3.75 GPA and had started his Masters Degree by the time he had finished his football eligibility.
Alex Smith’s collegiate career ended the way most mid-major collegiate players do in college football, by being left out. His team went perfect but was never in serious conversation of getting a chance to playing for the title. They beat everyone they played in the regular season including the PAC-10s Arizona 23-6 and the BIG 12’s Texas A&M 41-21. They had no close games in the season defeating their opponents by an average of 27 points. Though they were given BCS game it was to an undeserving 8-3 Pittsburg Team who they thrashed. At no time were they in consideration to play with the other undefeated teams or test their abilities against the best. As is the theme of college football, elitism rules and merit is not awarded.
Smith, though not glamorous in his collegiate career was impressive enough to be the #1 draft pick by the San Francisco 49ers. That year the Utes would have the #1 pick in both the NFL and NBA (Andrew Bogut would be drafted by Milwaukee, the only time a university has had the #1 pick in both drafts, so much for the inferiority of mid-majors). But the San Francisco 49ers were not the team of Smith’s youth. They were a hot mess.
Mike Nolan had just been hired as the new Head Coach and he liked Smith over the other highly touted quarterback in that draft, local Aaron Rodgers. Smith would go to the 49ers and Rodgers would go to the Packers. That rookie class in 2005 had a lot of great college quarterbacks come out. There was Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart (he would sputter and fade quickly with the Arizona Cardinals) and National Champion winning Vince Young (he would sputter and fade slower than Leinart with the Tennessee Titans, each year brings new rumors he’ll get another chance). Rodgers has won a Super Bowl. And Alex Smith, he has had everything go wrong.
The 49ers, as already stated, were a mess. He dealt with new Head Coaches and 7 different Offensive Coordinators throughout the beginning 7 years in the League. Despite that fact he continued to put up respectable quarterback stats even as his team struggled to win games. I’ll always remember the Week 5 game in the 2010 season. 2009 the team had been led by former defensive player Mike Singletary and the 2010 by former quarterback coach Mike Johnson. Despite top draft picks in O-line man to protect him the 49ers were 0-5 and losing when the 49er crowd began booing Alex Smith and chanting for his replacement. Smith responded without guile or arrogance but proceed to drive his offense down the fields to his fans boos. After 2 successful touchdowns the 49ers were down only 3 points. But an end of the game interception kept the team winless.
He was booed by the teams fans, he had no consistency in the coaching staff and he couldn’t manage to stay healthy. He had won 19 games in his 50 starts. Then came Harbaugh.
Jim Harbaugh, former NFL quarterback, brother of Ravens Head Coach and successful Stanford Head Coach, came into the chaos that was the 49ers organization and won. Harbaugh reached out to Alex Smith, convincing the beat-up quarterback that he wanted him to lead his offense. They went 13-3 in the 2011 season. Alex Smith would play in his first ever post-season game in the second week having earned a first round bye. Smith had a perfectly satisfying season. No he was not Peyton Manning or Drew Brees. But he made his throws and did not make huge mistakes. He may not have been his teams greatest weapon, but with over 3000 passing yards and league low 5 interceptions on the season he was what any NFL team needed to win.
In the NFC Division Smith won the game against Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints. He was bold and he was brilliant. More than a game manager but not good enough to lead the 49ers against New York Giants to the Super Bowl the following week.
Feeling was high on the 49ers entering the 2012 season. Smith had shown his own fans and the NFL he was a quarterback to be feared. Not only could he just manage a team, he could win a game if asked. But here, again, fate gave Smith an awkward twist.
Smith’s backup in the 2012 season was Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick could not have been a more different quarterback than Smith. Kaepernick could run, Smith could throw. Kaepernick was an incredibly exciting athlete, Smith was a game manager. Kaepernick had been drafted in the lower rounds, like Smith out of a mid-major program, The University of Nevada at Reno. Smith had spent his whole career beating back the back up for the job. This was supposed to be his season, he had a Head Coach that believed in him, there was consistency from last season, something he had not had his whole career.
But in the 9th game of an 8-2 season he suffered a concussion. Concussions had been the talk of the game that season. In May of 2012 Junior Seau a beloved former Charger committed suicide. His family, experts and every talking head blamed it on the many concussions he received while playing football. The conversation going into that season was about concussions, how we should treat athletes that get them, how serious were they and whether the NFL needed to take a more deliberate action in the issue.
Alex Smith got his concussion in the 2nd quarter and his backup, Colin Kaepernick took over the offensive. Another 49er quarterback controversy ensued. Kaepernick won, but Smith was winning. Should a player lose his starting job for an injury, especially a concussion? But how do you sit such a hot player?
Head Coach Jim Harbaugh played it close to the chest. Smith had been 19-5-1 since Harbaugh had joined. Smith had dealt with it all, chaotic front office, booing fans. They had been 1 win away from the Super Bowl last year. But Kaepernick was exciting, he could run and he could throw and he could scramble. He was not a game manager, he was a winner.
Kaepernick held on to his starting job, with Alex Smith classily coaching him throughout the end of the season. Kaepernick would take the 49ers where Smith had fallen just short last year, to the Super Bowl. Harbaugh brothers would play each other and the elder John and his Baltimore Ravens defeated Kaepernick.
It was a real lose-lose for Smith, he had no Super Bowl ring and no job. All from a concussion. All from a hot nobody from Reno.
Smith was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs for the 2013 season. 2012 would be the highlight of Kaepernick’s career. The next year he would take the 49ers to the NFC Championship Game but no farther. 2014 Kaepernick and the 49ers would go 8-8 and Jim Harbaugh would lose his job. In 2015 Kaepernick would lose his starting job to Jim Tomsula. In 2016, Kaepernick would kneel and launch himself into a famousness and cultural conversation way bigger than football. His road to the cover of Time Magazine began with unseating Alex Smith.
Meanwhile, in Kansas City, Smith was paired with another offensive genius, Andy Reid. In his first season with the Chiefs it would take 10 games for them to lose, leading the first half of the season in record in the entire NFL. Though they faltered the second half of the season he would take them to the playoffs. They would lose in the first round without Smith throwing an interception. It was his first year to be elected to the Pro Bowl. He was praised for his brilliance on an off the field, at one time with the 49ers he was considered one of the smartest men in the NFL.
2014 was a disappointment after his last two seasons, Smith and the Chiefs went 9-7 but missed the playoffs. He had 18 touchdowns to just 6 interceptions and another 3,000 yard passing season.
While Kaepernick was losing his starting job in 2015, the Chiefs made it back to the playoffs and went to the Divisional Round where they would lose to the Patriots. Again he was elected to the Pro-Bowl, this time as an alternate.
Maybe things were looking up for the Ute quarterback once booed by the 49ers fans.
But in 2017, a whisper of what was to come showed up at the end of the season. Together Smith and Reid had put together an amazing season, including beating the defending Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots in the season opener. By week 17, they had secured a playoff spot, so they rested Smith. Smith’s backup was a kid named Patrick Mahomes.
The Chiefs had selected Mahomes in the 1st round the previous season from Texas Tech. Mahomes was electric and with a sense of history repeating itself, Smith saw the young kid shine.
Smith would start their playoff game in the Wild Card Series and lose to the Tennessee Titans. He would be elected for the 3rd time to the Pro Bowl. But Mahomes was who the Chiefs wanted going forward.
During the offseason the Kansas City Chiefs traded Smith to the Washington Redskins. Throughout Smith career he had taken less money (in the case of the 49ers) or restructured his deals to help management. No hard feelings were shared, at least publicly by the twice rejected Smith.
Again he had lost his starting job with a good team after incredible individual and team success.
He started out strong in the 2018 with the Washington Redskins. Jumping the Redskins to a 6-3 record before a gruesome injury in Week 11 against the Houston Texans occurred. With flashback images of Joe Theisman, Smiths leg was broken while being sacked. He was in the hospital for a month with the injury. With the start of the 2019 season ahead, there are some that say he may never be back.
At the same time, Smith’s replacement Patrick Mahomes lit up the NFL. He led the Chiefs to the AFC Championship game where they would narrowly lose to the eventual Super Bowl Champs, the New England Patriots. Mahomes would break all sorts of Chiefs records and earn himself the leagues MVP and Offensive Player of the Year. All as Alex Smith tries to get back on the field.
Mahomes, like Kaepernick before him, placed Smith’s great accomplishments as side notes to their headlining stories.
There is almost no bad press on Smith. He is liked and respected by his teammates, coaches and management. He is generally regarded as an intellectually brilliant individual, on and off the football field. He has had a great NFL career by most standards. But somehow, he is the forgotten other in so many of the great story lines of football.
Whether it’s the story of Urban Meyer, who may be one of the best collegiate coaches of his generation. Meyer would leave Utah after Smith graduated and win National Titles with Florida and Ohio State. He wasn’t allowed the chance to play for it with Utah or Smith. His name is mentioned with the greats, but few remember the quarterback that launched him to national attention, Alex Smith.
Or Colin Kaepernick, who has become much bigger than football. His play on the field secondary to his political statements. But his story is intricately linked with Smith. If concussions hadn’t been such a focus in the 2012 season would Smith ever have been pulled? If he had never been pulled, would Kaepernick ever have earned himself a spot in the starting role? Kaepernick’s story begins too with the unlucky turn of fate for Smith.
And this year’s main story line has been Patrick Mahomes. He is a phenom, an amazing athlete on the field with an arm like a second baseman and the running ability of Kaepernick. He’s dynamic, he is likeable, he is a great football player. But the only reason Mahomes got a starting job, is he took it from Smith. Smith was traded so Mahomes could shine.
Now, Smith awaits the doctors and time. At 34 can he bounce back and again be the Pro Bowl Player he achieved with Andy Reid and the Chiefs? Or will his story end there, as the frog leaped over by the many great stories in the NFL and collegiate football era?