Looking back on it, it's fairly easy to see why Alex Smith was labeled one of the all-time draft busts in NFL history.
Going into the 2005 draft, the choice at No. 1 for former 49ers coach and general manager Mike Nolan was between Smith, who flourished at Utah under Urban Meyer's spread offense, or Aaron Rodgers, a local kid who grew up a 49ers fan and played in a pro style offense at Cal. Most 49ers fans wanted the team to pick Rodgers mostly because they had seen more of him on TV.
Rodgers endured three years of apprenticeship behind Brett Favre at Green Bay, but once he finally took over as a starter in 2008, he experienced success (at least statistically) almost immediately and led his team to the playoffs in his second season as a starter. That's accomplishing more in two years worth of starts than Smith had in five years for the 49ers. Rodgers had 58 touchdown passes to 20 interceptions in his first two years as a starter. Smith's career totals by that point were 37 touchdowns and 43 interceptions. Nolan's decision looked infinitely worse last year, when Rodgers led the Packers to a Super Bowl triumph while Smith led the 49ers to another losing season -- and another fired coach in Mike Singletary.
With Rodgers established as a superstar, Nolan's choice looked like the NFL's answer to the 1984 NBA draft, where the Portland Trail Blazers chose center Sam Bowie (who would go on to have an oft-injured journeyman career) with the second pick over some kid named Michael Jordan. For a franchise with a quarterback history as rich as the 49ers, it was seemed unthinkable they could make such a costly evaluation mistake. No less a team authority than Jerry Rice described the Smith pick as "the worst move ever" in an interview.
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It didn't seem to matter to Rice, or the countless other experts (and certainly not to fans), that Rodgers got to sit, learn for three years, and then join a loaded team that had just gone to the NFC Championship Game before handing him the starting gig, or that he's had the same coaches and system in place for virtually his entire career. Meanwhile, Smith joined a club with expansion-team talent in 2005, was thrown into the fire almost immediately as a 20 year old and that he'd had a constant flux of coaches and coordinators their various offenses. For the first six years of Smith's career, he labored for defensive-minded head coaches who considered it a point of pride to not know the team's offensive plays. Since his second NFL season, Rodgers has played under Mike McCarthy -- Smith's offensive coordinator during his rookie season.
How much does coaching matter in pro sports? Witness Smith's turnaround under first-year coach Jim Harbaugh, a 15-year NFL quarterback and former Stanford coach who worked with Andrew Luck. Harbaugh helped Luck develop into the hottest QB prospect since Peyton Manning. Under Harbaugh's guidance, with no minicamps nor offseason to speak of because of the lockout, Smith led the 49ers to a 13-3 record while engineering five fourth-quarter comeback wins. Smith set a franchise record for fewest interceptions (five) and had a better touchdown-to-interception ratio than any season Joe Montana had for the 49ers.
It was Montana who the 49ers covertly recruited a couple of seasons ago to help Smith out, back when Singletary was in charge and he was struggling in Jimmy Raye's meat-and-potatoes offense. Montana told a story recently at a speaking engagement celebrating the 30th anniversary of "The Catch," his winning touchdown pass to Dwight Clark in the 1982 NFC Championship.
"I made it through about midway through the fourth series of the first game [tape] before I couldn't take it anymore and I called [Alex] and told him 'Dude, your offense sucks,'" Montana recounted. "It was third and 8 and there was no place for him to go with the football."
Montana went on to explain that even he could not have found consistent success in the offense Smith was operating.
Smith had a nice 2011 season for the 49ers, but was viewed mostly as a "game manager" and the team's success more attributable to the defense and running back Frank Gore. So it raised more than a couple of eyebrows when Smith outdueled Drew Brees last Saturday, leading two touchdown drives, for 80 and 85 yards, in the final four minutes to secure victory. His 14-yard touchdown pass to tight end Vernon Davis with nine seconds to go will go down in 49ers lore, just a rung below Clark's original catch. Smith has the team one win from an unimaginable trip to the Super Bowl.
So did Nolan screw this up as much as we thought? What if the comparison between Rodgers and Smith isn't Jordan and Bowie but rather Jordan and the first pick of that 1984 NBA Draft, Hakeem Olajuwon? What if there was no wrong choice between the two?
The NFL is littered with the first-round quarterback busts. The game has broken and battered them, psychologically and physically. It never broke Smith, who survived two throwing-shoulder operations, outlasted Nolan (who questioned the severity of Smith's separated shoulder) and Singletary (who questioned the importance of a QB). Through six miserable seasons, Smith never took a misstep off the field, never vented his frustrations on a reporter the way Ryan Leaf did, never fired back at the coaches who repeatedly blamed him for their shortcomings.
There's no way Smith would've lasted as long as he has if he wasn't respected by his teammates.
"We just appreciate him as a man," tackle Joe Staley explained to Sports Illustrated. "Never one time has he thrown anyone under the bus, even though he's got a new coordinator or different offense every year. And it's so fitting Alex went toe to toe with Drew Brees in a playoff game, and no one gave him a chance, and he makes that [touchdown] run, and then he makes that touchdown throw to Vernon Davis, right on the money. It's just fantastic. It happened the way it should have."
Staley just as easily could have been describing the team's decision to draft Smith.