Author's Note: For the full experience, read this while listening to this. And feel free to read the lyrics, as they are also appropriate.
The 49ers have just destroyed the Green Bay Packers thanks in no small part to Colin Kaepernick. The dynamic, young, inked-up QB, when he wasn't throwing lasers to Michael Crabtree, was tearing a pretty solid defense to shreds on the ground. Despite an early pick-6, he rebounded to lead the Niners to a huge win and send them to their second consecutive NFC Championship game.
The tendency would be to celebrate and focus on what this means for the Niners going forward. That is certainly a good idea and something that we should do. However, in this post, I'd like to look instead at the man who brought the Niners to their first NFC Championship game. The man who Colin Kaepernick replaced at QB midseason, prompting internet and real life debates that lasted until, well, tonight. The man who has been the QB for the San Francisco 49ers, through ups and downs, for most of the last 7 years. The man who by now you have already realized is Alex Smith.
I'm still a very young person, and I haven't been a sports fan for very long. My first sports memory came in 2001 at the age of 7, when Barry Bonds hit his 71st home run. And even after that, for the next few years it's all bits and pieces. The first 49ers game I remember was the only one I've been to: A relatively meaningless game against the Chiefs in 2002. I only started hitting my sports fandom stride around 2005, which you might also recognize as the year where Alex Smith was drafted by the 49ers.In other words, I have been along for the ride for Alex Smith's entire story arc, but nothing else - I was not privy to the Montana/Young golden years.
I remember being kind of happy about Smith's drafting. Aaron Rodgers had been in rumors to go to the 49ers, which I didn't like since Rodgers was an evil Bear. Instead, the Niners drafted Smith, and as we all heard a billion times today, let Rodgers slide to the Packers.
And for a while, there was hope. After a disastrous rookie season, Smith made a ton of progress under Norv Turner. But then Turner left, which worked awfully for Smith and not that well for Turner. The next year, Smith was absolutely awful. After leading the 49ers to two close wins, the season fell apart for Alex, as the Niners lost their next 8. Smith was not solely at fault - he broke his shoulder , and the 49ers and Dr. James Andrews completely mishandled the situation. Smith returned too soon and re-injured himself, leading to a feud between him and Mike Nolan where Nolan insinuated that Smith wasn't 'fighting it out'. Could you imagine that happening today?
2008 was not much better for Alex. After a good start to the preseason, he was placed on Injured Reserve - it was his shoulder again. At this point, many Niners fans were hoping that Smith would be out as the 49ers QB, but instead, he re-negotiated his contract, taking a considerable pay cut to remain with the Niners in 2009. Yes, he took a pay cut to stay with the team that had mishandled his shoulder injury! Luckily, Nolan was fired during the 2008 season. Unluckily, he was replaced by the immortal Mike Singletary.
2009, on the other hand, was much better, as Alex replaced Shaun Hill and played pretty well, leading the 49ers to a 5-5 record in his starts and throwing 18 touchdowns vs 12 interceptions. But then, 2010 happened, including the lowest moment in Alex Smith's time as a 49er and in my sports fandom.
It wasn't entirely undeserved, too. Look at those throws - simply pathetic. The entire city wanted him out, and they got their wish, with Troy Smith coming in and actually looking pretty decent.
Alex finished 2010 on a high note. In weeks 13-16, he had a 61% completion percentage, with 5 touchdowns to 1 interception. It didn't matter: we all wanted him gone. I was among that group: I wanted to draft Blaine Gabbert with the #7 pick over a certain other Missouri player. But Jim Harbaugh stuck with Alex, and it payed off: he was fantastic in 2011 and started 2012 extremely strongly before being replaced by Kaepernick.
Alex Smith has been the avatar of the 49ers ever since he was drafted. Whenever he plays well, the Niners play well - when he plays poorly, the Niners play poorly. Obviously, there is some post hoc ergo propter hoc going on there - the QB is obviously going to be the most important player on any team and contributes quite a bit to a team's success. But this seems to be even more true for Alex Smith and the 49ers. Really, he's been inseparable from the image of the Niners. And this is despite him having every reason to leave and us having every reason to dump him. This story should have ended in 2010: The Niners were making a clean break with a new head coach, forgetting the mistakes of the past. Alex would leave and get a much-needed change of scenery where he could part ways with an organization and fans that had treated him terribly. No one would have blamed either side for just giving up on the other following 2010.
But neither side gave up. Alex was instrumental in bringing Harbaugh's new scheme together after the lockout in 2010, and proceeded to play at a level he'd never reached before. Still, there were doubters, both in the media and the fandom itself. A 'game manager', they called him. He couldn't lead the 49ers to the promised land. He couldn't win a shootout. He couldn't make the big plays when it counted.
My favorite moment of the 2011 season is exactly what most people's is: Alex Smith putting a laser right on Vernon Davis to win the Saints game. But for me, it was incredible for a reason beyond helping the 49ers win a big playoff game. For me, it was amazing because of Alex Smith, and because of his journey. He'd never had a coach that would trust him and treat him well; Harbaugh called a tough play for him instead of playing it safe and going for the field goal. He'd never had receivers nor blockers to help him be successful; on that play, the blocking was picture perfect and Vernon made a fantastic grab. The media had always doubted him; after that play, the doubts stopped The fans had never truly accepted him; after that play, there was only cheering.
The story of Alex Smith and the 49ers ended tonight. It was likely over long ago, but we didn't realize it; there were still arguments over which quarterback was the right call, whether Kaepernick had the chops to lead the 49ers. Those arguments are over. Smith's fate is sealed: he will likely either be traded for a draft pick or 2, or released to save the cap money. He's still a very solid quarteback and he should land on his feet, though God help him if he lands in Kansas City or New York. But the story has made a dramatic shift from 2010: The lasting memory will no longer be the 'We Want Carr' game. Now, we'll remember him for The Catch III, for 2011, for giving way gracefully to Kaepernick. And one thing I will always remember is that when he came in to the Cardinals game this year, he left the field to the San Francisco fans cheering his name.
From 2005 until week 9 this year, the 49ers were Alex Smith's team. From week 9 until tonight, they were Colin Kaepernick's team, but we weren't prepared to close the book on Alex. After tonight's performance by Kaepernick, the book is closed. Good luck wherever you go, Alex; I hope that you are as memorable there as you have been here, and for good reasons this time.
Good night sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.