MAQB: How Alex Smith's Toughness Has Defined His Whole Career, Not Just His Comeback

Former 49ers GM Scot McCloughan recounts seeing Alex Smith's toughness early on in his career. Plus, what the QB's retirement means for the Jaguars, Trey Lance's second pro day and more.
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This is more a Monday Evening Quarterback (sorry!) thanks to some flight delays. But to show you how I’ve grown over the years—no complaints. Delta was awesome in helping us get our armada through two airports over the last week. …

Quarterback Alex Smith, quarterback Trey Lance and tight end Hunter Long

• Former 49ers GM Scot McCloughan told me an awesome story Monday morning about his experience with Alex Smith—his first draft pick while in charge in San Francisco. The year was 2007, and the team had belief going into the year that, even under his third offensive coordinator in as many years, Smith was turning the corner. Then, in Week 4, he took a vicious hit from Seahawks defensive tackle Rocky Bernard and separated his shoulder.

Smith missed Week 5, then Week 6, and by Week 7, some coaches were chirping about the quarterback remaining sidelined. Which led to an eye-opening reaction.

“Some coaches questioned his toughness—and I was biased, but I knew what he was going through,” McCloughan said. “And so a couple veteran players who’d been in it with him came to me and basically said, ‘Never question that guy’s toughness.’ It was very telling to me. They have to do it. And it was defensive guys who did it, and here’s a young quarterback, first pick, making all this money. And they came to me with this.

“They were like, ‘Scot, that’s the last thing you have to worry about. This locker room has his back no matter what.’”

McCloughan said what he loves most about Smith, who announced his retirement on Monday, is that the QB has always stayed true to who he is. The world found out years later just how tough Smith is, with his return from a catastrophic 2018 leg injury standing as one of the greatest comebacks in the 101-year history of the NFL. In fact, that quality of being so consistent as a person is, in large part, why McCloughan decided to take Smith over a Cal quarterback named Aaron Rodgers in 2005.

“He checked all the boxes for us, he was young, he had upside and maturity, his family background was good, just a first-class kid,” Smith. “He was intelligent, and you knew he’d take care of all his business on and off the field. He took an average team at Utah, and won the Fiesta Bowl. It was just one of those picks where you feel really comfortable. Being the first pick is a huge responsibility. And there’s a reason we had first pick, we were the worst team in the league.

“Personnel-wise, we had a long way to go. We knew it’d take the whole group, and we’d have to guys will to keep fighting, and we knew he’d be in for that.”

Ultimately, it didn’t work out for McCloughan. He built the foundation for Jim Harbaugh’s juggernauts of a decade ago, but instability in coaching (chiefly, in cycling through five offensive coordinators in five years) did the Niners in, and combined with injuries (Smith wound up needing major shoulder surgery after the 2007 incident, and broke that shoulder in 2008) sunk any shot Smith had of making it early on.

But those same qualities that McCloughan saw in 2007 wound up being Smith's defining trait—his consistency and steadiness carried him right through a rough six-year start to his career (he had a sixth offensive coordinator in 2010, at which point McCloughan was gone), and set the stage for Jim Harbaugh, Greg Roma & Co., to finally harvest the talent that made him the first pick in the draft in the first place.

He went 19-5-1 before being displaced by Colin Kaepernick under Harbaugh, taking one team to an NFC title game, and setting a second up for a run to the Super Bowl, before posting five straight winning seasons, four of which ended in the playoffs, for Andy Reid from 2013–17, and then heading to Washington where he first played well, then put together his incomparable comeback.

That’s the stuff he’ll be remembered for. But just as interesting is the tall grass he had to navigate early in his career to make his second act possible. And sure, McCloughan has some regrets. Though he wouldn’t blame guys like Mike McCarthy or Norv Turner for leaving for head coaching jobs, he wishes he could’ve given Smith more OC stability (“If I knew it’d be five coordinators in five years, I wouldn’t have taken a quarterback first overall, that wasn’t fair to anyone”). He also regrets not having shut Smith down in ’07 (“That was my fault, I should’ve stepped in”).

But as he sees it, when so many people point to the Niners’ failure to take Rodgers in ’05, McCloughan knows Smith came exactly as advertised.

“You knew then exactly what you were getting,” McCloughan said. “We knew there were tough times ahead, and the question we had to come to, with the first pick, was how that guy was going to respond to the tough times. I knew he had all the little intangibles to do it.”

We now know he had those in spades.

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• Jaguars coach Urban Meyer was very open about his desire to bring Smith in as he establishes his program in Jacksonville, and the idea made all the sense in the world—Smith would be an ideal mentor for Trevor Lawrence as he transitions to the pros, and could be a sort of messenger for Meyer’s way to the rest of the locker room. And so losing out on that’s a minor defeat for Jacksonville, and in more ways than one.

As of right now, the team has two established quarterbacks on the depth chart in Gardner Minshew and C.J. Beathard, and unless the team is comfortable going forward with Beathard as the safety, the inability to land Smith may cost the Jags some flexibility to spin Minshew off on another quarterback-hungry team and bolster an already deep war chest of draft assets.

Trey Lance’s second pro day wasn’t a private workout. But it might’ve felt that way, with just nine NFL evaluators in Fargo to see the North Dakota State star throw. Here’s the roll call from the midday session …

Atlanta (3): assistant college scouting director Dwaune Jones, QBs coach Charles London, passing game specialist T.J. Yates.

Denver (1): OC Pat Shurmur

New England (2): executive Eliot Wolf, assistant director of player personnel Dave Ziegler.

San Francisco (3): GM John Lynch, QBs coach Rich Scangarello, head coach Kyle Shanahan.

Lance did wind up finding wideouts to throw to—which was a challenge, given that the Bison are in-season. He had free agents Jordan Veasy and Jordan Matthews at receiver, and a third free agent wideout, Brandon Zylstra, moonlighting at tight end. As one onlooker explained it to me, it was efficient and detailed, with an emphasis on pace and tempo. “He got after it,” the evaluator said.

In a lot of ways, it was just like Justin Fields’s second pro day, which makes sense in that both have been working with John Beck, who played for Shanahan in Washington and had communicated with the Niners on what the team wanted to see. And similar to Fields’s second workout, Lance’s wrapped up with Scangarello taking over to direct about a 10-throw sequence with receivers at spots, and the quarterback asked to react quickly.

What did it show? Lance’s footwork and release had clearly improved, showing the gains he’s made over the last few weeks. And it showed the sort of shape Lance has kept himself in, too. All in all, another good day for the QB.

Tight end Hunter Long at Boston College

• I’m going to call myself out on this one—I missed a tight end I shouldn’t have in the MMQB column. And while I’m not positive where Boston College’s Hunter Long will go next week, I do feel comfortable saying he’s in the post–Kyle Pitts tier of tight ends with Penn State’s Pat Freiermuth and Notre Dame’s Tommy Tremble.

As we mentioned in the MMQB column, there’s a healthy drop-off at the position after that group.

• One other thing to add about the draft class: One team told me over the weekend that it expects to be into its second-round grades somewhere in the mid-to-late teens. Now, for context, it’s rare that any teams would have 32 first-round grades on players in any class.

Still, the idea we could be there at 16 or 17, where some teams are looking at the guys available as second-round values, is telling on the composition of the class. After the first three receivers, first three corners, the quarterbacks and top two offensive linemen, and Pitts, it seems things start to flatten out to where a player taken after that group might ultimately resemble a guy taken 30 or 40 picks later in the league.

• Lawyer Rusty Hardin’s response in the Deshaun Watson case merits mention in the details of claims Watson’s team is making—that five of the women worked on him again after the alleged incidents, a sixth checked in on him after games following an incident and asked for more work, and that plaintiffs lied about the number of sessions they had with Watson and the resulting trauma from those. He also referred to the claims as a “money grab.’

I’m no lawyer, but that doesn’t sound like someone who’s spoiling for a settlement.

• Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians got it right on players choosing not to show up to offseason programs league-wide on Monday, speaking to the Tampa media at his family foundation gala on Sunday night: “I can’t wait to get on the field with them and it’s not time yet. The opting out thing doesn’t bother me at all. We were going to be virtual until the middle of May anyway. Get it going, get it started back in your brain.”

Teams were in virtual meetings today. Football practice doesn’t start, per the NFL’s rules, until May 17, and even that week will be at a walkthrough pace. The first real practices are on May 24. So there’s plenty of time for issues to be worked out, and for players to get vaccinated, too.

• I’d add that Tom Brady will be fine even if he’s limited in the spring. Something to keep in mind: In his twilight in New England, Brady used to skip the team’s offseason program, then gather skill players at his house in Montana for a few days of bonding and work. So if you’re near Big Sky, and it’s June, and you run into Mike Evans or Chris Godwin, you’ll know why.

• I give the Bengals’ new uniforms a B-plus. I’d have liked to see them go with the color rush unis, and black and orange variants of it. But as it was, they cleaned up what had been a pretty cluttered look. Good work by them.

• Just too bad seeing Aldon Smith in trouble again

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