- This week’s flurry of trades stirred another wave of takes and criticisms from those on the outside looking in. Let the reaction to the Chiefs’ acquisition of Alex Smith four-and-a-half years ago serve as a reminder of just what those opinions are worth
Many moons ago, way back in February 2013, the San Francisco 49ers traded Alex Smith to the Kansas City Chiefs, and the Niners made out like gangbusters according to everyone with a keyboard.
In the budding realm of snap reactions—many of them identical in tone and tenor to the steady flow of NFL content that followed this season’s trade deadline frenzy—49ers GM Trent Baalke was declared the unanimous winner, and the Chiefs braintrust—Andy Reid and GM John Dorsey—the loser.
“I don’t think it’s going to take the Chiefs very long to have a serious case of buyer's remorse with Alex Smith,” tweeted Bart Hubbuch, then of the New York Post.
When the Chiefs added local product and former Saints backup Chase Daniel to the roster, the takes grew hotter:
“Chase Daniel and Alex Smith = less than a franchise passer,” tweeted Pete Prisco, now a writer for CBS Sports.
“QB controversy should start around Week 6,” tweeted Gregg Rosenthal, now a writer for NFL.com.
Once that summer’s NFL draft rolled around, the takes intensified, with local and national media taking shots at Reid’s first big move as Chiefs head coach. Rather than trade for Smith, the safe choice, said former NFL coach Herm Edwards, he’d have invested in a rookie. “Knowing me, because I’m not afraid, I would have drafted a quarterback,” Edwards said.
“I think the reason it’s going to end badly is because somebody in this draft is going to end up being a great quarterback,” said 810 AM radio host Kevin Kietzman of the 2013 NFL draft, which produced quarterbacks EJ Manuel, Geno Smith, Mike Glennon, Matt Barkley, Ryan Nassib, Tyler Wilson, Landry Jones, Brad Sorensen, Zac Dysert, B.J. Daniels and Sean Renfree.
“There are going to be plenty of guys in this year’s draft that are going to be better than Alex Smith," he continued. "I guarantee you there’s a quarterback in this draft better than Alex Smith—probably three or four.”
Ian Kenyon, now an NFL Associate Editor at Bleacher Report, saw the Smith deal as an indictment of the status quo in roster building. “Alex Smith to KC proves, once again, how flawed NFL team building is,” Kenyon tweeted. “Building a Super Bowl team (the goal) is a process, not patchwork”
Most took issue with the price of the deal. “I don’t like it at all,” said Jay Binkley of 610 AM in Kansas City. “If it was a fourth- or a fifth-round pick I’d be good for it.”
In the deal that sent Smith to Kansas City, San Francisco received the Chiefs' second-round pick in 2013 and a conditional pick in 2014. The team that reached a Super Bowl with Colin Kaepernick in 2012 (after Smith went down with a midseason concussion) would flip those picks and eventually wind up with five players.
Pro Football Talk called it a “windfall.”
“They’ll have to pay for a quarterback soon enough,” wrote Darin Gantt of the Niners and Kaepernick, “But they turned their last one into a slew of parts, which should help them stay solvent for years to come.”
The 49ers did not stay solvent. Harbaugh was gone after the 2014 season. Baalke exited after 2016. Kaepernick too. That five-player “windfall”: DE Tank Carradine (2013 second round), OLB Corey Lemonier (2013 third round), RB Carlos Hyde (2014 second round), LB Chris Borland (2014 third round) and WR Stevie Johnson (acquired for 2015 fourth-round pick).
Carradine has been a rotational lineman since entering the league, with five career sacks (he’s currently on IR with an ankle injury), and Hyde has yet to top 1,000 yards rushing or play in more than 13 games in a season. The other three are no longer in the NFL.
Ask current 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan who he’d rather have at quarterback in 2017, Smith—the guy for whom the franchise received that outlandish compensation in 2013—or the inexperienced Patriots backup for whom he just dealt a second-rounder. Shanahan might laugh. All Smith has done since 2013 is complete a higher percentage of his passes than Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers with a lower interception rate than anyone in football but Brady, and help the Chiefs to the postseason in three of his four full seasons. In 2017, he leads the NFL in passer rating, is second in passing yards behind Brady and has yet to throw an interception in 259 attempts for Andy Reid's 6-2 team.
What the Alex Smith parable should teach us is that nobody’s opinion on personnel moves in the NFL matters during the day, month or year the move is made. When columnists, radio hosts, analysts and tweeters whip up regional contempt for decision-makers, it serves only two purposes, and neither of them are good. First and foremost, it brings attention to the person doing the talking and the forum doing the publishing. Draft and trade grades get clicks because they’re easily digestible and gratify an impatient audience’s most base urges, like internet porn or movies about cars that go fast.
The second purpose is to generate undue stimulus on the shot-caller, good or bad. Trent Baalke is a genius, they said, because look at all these picks. Andy Reid is putting his neck on the line, they said. Because Alex Smith isn’t any good. It’s lazy, and it impacts franchises in ways that often can’t be measured. Fans, echoing their media conductors, begin to believe the team is headed in the wrong direction, and now tickets aren’t moving as quickly as ownership would like, and general managers and coaches suddenly have less leeway. Every decision-maker not named Bill Belichick oscillates on and off the hot seat. Meanwhile all the media takes, premature or not, just disappear into the ether, and every pundit is absolved of his sins.
This is why coaches and players look down their noses at us from locker room stalls and press conference podiums. And this is why they take angry fan tweets with a grain of salt. Because they know, once the wins pile up, we’ll all smile and say congratulations. Or worse, I told you so.
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