Is Alex Smith the 'best in the league'? Hardly, but he still may thrive in Kansas City
Look, Alex Smith, with more than a little assist from Jim Harbaugh, deserves all the credit in the world for reviving his career. The former No. 1 overall pick was on the verge of relegation to career backup/total bust status before the 2011 season, only to lead San Francisco to a 13-3 record and a playoff win plus a 6-2-1 start to 2012.
But this, as told by new Chiefs offensive coordinator Doug Pederson to The Kansas City Star, is absurd:
“Ultimately, every team has to have a quarterback,” Pederson said. “I think we have the best in the league.”
“There are a lot of great ones,” Pederson said, “but over time, Alex has proven he can get it done. He’s a sharp guy, he brings a wealth of knowledge, he’s experienced, he’s a proven winner the last couple of years, and he needs a team to embrace him.”
OK, OK, Pederson should be fully supportive of his new quarterback. And Smith's play over the past two seasons definitely earned him another starting shot in this league. He did, after all, complete an incredible 70.2 percent of his passes last season -- a number better than any QB with more than 13 attempts, more than a percentage point ahead of Matt Ryan and Peyton Manning, the full-season leaders at 68.6 percent.
In that Harbaugh-led system, one which masked Smith's shortcomings and took full advantage of his strengths, Smith rather remarkably turned the corner with the 49ers. Had he not suffered a concussion midway through last season, the Legend of Colin Kaepernick may never have been born.
Smith could be a terrific fit in Andy Reid's Chiefs offense, too. Reid has a history of getting the best out of his QBs, and he's reportedly tinkering with elements like the pistol formation and some option plays.
Anything beyond expecting Smith to play well, though, is just lip service.
No offensive coordinator is going to step in front of the press and say, "Yeah, our guy's pretty good ... but I wish we had Peyton Manning." So, this is less about taking Pederson to task for implying that he'd pick Smith over Brady or Brees if given the choice, than it is about pinning down where Smith actually falls in the QB pecking order. And, by doing so, determining exactly what the Chiefs can expect from him in 2013.
What we think we know about Smith at this point in his career is that he is more than capable of racking up wins, maybe even leading the charge at times as he did in San Francisco's 36-32 playoff win over the Saints two seasons ago. (Smith threw for 299 yards and three touchdowns in that game.)
He's also a QB who usually is at his best when not asked to do too much. Last season, for example, Smith attempted 30 or more passes in just three of his nine starts -- and the 49ers were 1-2 in those games. His best 2012 outings came when he attempted 26, 24 and 19 passes. In those turns, against Green Bay, Buffalo and Arizona, respectively, he completed a combined 81.2 percent of his passes with eight touchdowns and no interceptions.
During the 13-3 regular season in 2012, Smith was 20th among full-time starters in passes attempted.
Reid's no doubt aware of all this. Same goes for Pederson. The 49ers did not necessarily thrive in 2011 or early in 2012 because of Smith; Smith thrived because of the 49ers. That's not to say that his improvement as a passer and decision-maker was a total mirage. Or that Smith was a total system quarterback, destined to bomb now that he's outside the comfy confines of Harbaugh's tutelage.
Rather, it's meant to point out that Smith had two terrific seasons after six disastrous ones. That the uptick happened to occur as San Francisco greatly improved its team and adjusted its offensive playbook to better utilize Smith is no coincidence.
Smith should carry over his recent improvement from San Francisco to Kansas City, because he's landed in another promising situation -- flush with a head coach capable of getting the most from him. Any talk of Smith as one of the NFL's great quarterbacks, however, will have to wait until he's proven himself for far longer than a season and a half.