Alex Smith may go down as one of the most underrated quarterbacks during the time of his career, but never once have you heard him lament about the hand that’s dealt. Fooch found a great quote comparing him to tofu and I think that’s pretty accurate.
When Smith’s career began it was on the path of a bust. A quarterback that couldn’t get anything done. Turns out the bust label was on the part of bad coaching (having an offensive coordinator enter and exit each year will have a hand in that). The relationship of competing quarterbacks can be a tough one. Brett Favre is a great example of this, someone who made it clear he didn’t want to help a young Aaron Rodgers.
However, Smith faced competition from quarterbacks that were not going to undercut each other. We’ve heard plenty about his strong relationship with Trent Dilfer, but another interesting one was with Shaun Hill. Hill came to the 49ers in 2006, serving initially as the third string quarterback. Hill made his debut in late 2007 after Trent Dilfer suffered a concussion. Hill received a contract extension in 2008 and competed with J.T. O’Sullivan and Alex Smith for the starting role. Smith went on IR and Hill took over the starting job in the second half of the season.
In 2009, Hill competed with Smith for the starting job, and won it to open the season. However, Smith re-claimed the job in Week 7 and started the rest of the season.
It was quite the back-and-forth over the course of four seasons, but it did not created the kind of rivalry that can hurt a locker room. Earlier this week, Smith spoke with Peter King about the importance of not under-cutting a teammate. The comments were in the context of his strong relationship last year with Patrick Mahomes.
“I think when I got hurt early in my career in San Francisco, Shaun had to step in to play, and watching Shaun play and prepare, I learned a lot. We were good buddies. He and I competed. The year after that it was an open competition. Shaun and I competed directly against each other for the job and I remember Shaun and I talking a lot about the fact that it didn’t have to be the way the media was trying to make it. It didn’t have to be me versus him. We didn’t have to get sucked into that cliché. That it could be different. That we could compete our butts off against each other and that we were going to, and that nothing would ever bleed into the locker room. There would never be an undercutting of each other.”
This mentality probably is what led to Alex Smith’s relationship with Colin Kaepernick. When Smith got a grip on the starting job, he was already competing against another quarterback in Jim Harbaugh’s first year when Kaepernick was drafted. In Harbaugh’s second year, the two were pitted against each other after Kaepernick had an impressive debut against the Chicago Bears while Smith was on the sidelines due to the concussion protocol. There were always questions about what the locker room was like during the 2012 season, but by all accounts, Smith was focused on being a good teammate to Kaepernick. Any open rivalry they may have had was squashed when Smith called the competition a good problem for the 49ers to have and Kaepernick giving praise to Smith as his mentor.
The whole thing obviously turned with Smith losing the competition and Kaepernick being the eventual victor. Smith would have the same turn of events happen when the Kansas City Chiefs drafted Patrick Mahomes while Smith was the Chiefs starter. You’d think having his job yanked by an up and comer, then shipped off elsewhere would have Smith a bit salty when it was about to happen again, but as Smith says in the same article it was anything but:
“I remember the first phone call I ever had with him when we drafted him. I said right off the bat, ‘You’ll never have to worry about me ever undercutting you.’ I think it took him off guard. But I just wanted to make that very clear.”
So, this means two things. Shaun Hill’s work with Smith carried on in Smith’s relationships with Colin Kaepernick and Patrick Mahomes. Hill might be a mostly forgotten quarterback at this point, but he is involved in a productive, healthy legacy with Smith. It’s not quite the NFL career he might have foreseen, but it’s something to be proud of.
But the bigger thing: Alex Smith is a consummate professional, and might be tops on a list of the most consummate professionals in the NFL. Given the positive influence he’s left (and how the quarterbacks after him have had great success with his help) he might be a better mentor than a quarterback.
And despite what you may think, that’s saying something.