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Could Sam Darnold revitalize his career like Alex Smith?

He’s got a few people to beat first before he can prove it

In case you forgot: coaching matters. Yes, there’s always a slew of players who are who they will be and what they are is a wasted pick or a bust. And yes, that tends to be what happens more often than not, but there’s also those players that were picked by bad teams, subjected to a dysfunctional front office, and really not even given a chance to succeed no matter what their upside.

Which brings us to Sam Darnold and that praise that everyone is blowing out of proportion. Whether he’s the best thrower of the football the San Francisco 49ers have had (and hey, he might be) or if he won’t do anything besides play in a couple preseason games can be up to you to decide, but he’s got a shot to be with some competent coaching. Something he arguably hasn’t had.

Now, let’s be fair. As Kyle said in the post I linked above, if Sam Darnold was this transcendent player, he wouldn’t have gone through three teams in four years, nor multiple coaching changes. That said, while he’s not on that level, he also hasn’t had, hmmm, how do I put this: a good team?

The entire situation is reminiscent of Alex Smith during his time with the 49ers. If you want a good visual history, the film Sportsfan is always a good watch. As many of you know, Smith was drafted first overall with ridiculous expectations. Coaches threw him under the bus, fans called for his backup, and he was a part of an eternal quarterback carousel which featured the likes of Shaun Hill and Troy Smith. Smith’s coaches his first six years? Mike Singletary and Mike Nolan. And let’s not get started with the amount of offensive coordinators, all of which couldn’t make it through two seasons either from becoming head coaches or just being bad at their job.

Enter: Jim Harbaugh. When Smith’s contract ended it seemed like a foregone conclusion Smith would play elsewhere. Six years and he was labeled a bust. And why wouldn’t he be? Do I need to link the “We want Carr” chants again?

Harbaugh changed all that. Argue all you want on if Harbaugh was the second coming of Vince Lombardi, let’s at least agree he was competent. He had a roster Singletary led to 6-10 the year prior and had them with the No. 2 Seed and a NFC Championship game appearance. An appearance because this happened.

The 49ers lost the game, but not because of Smith. They lost because of other issues. He didn’t put the team on his back in the NFC Championship game to win it, but he certainly didn’t cost them the game either.

The next year, Smith wound up leading the league in completion percentage and being third in passing until his unfortunate demotion to QB2 after the rise of Colin Kaepernick mid-season. Just for the curious, doing well with those two stats are not how you get demoted if you’re a bust. The following year, Smith was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs (coached by Andy Reid), and remained the starter until Patrick Mahomes entered the picture. Smith received three Pro Bowl nods while with the Chiefs.

Smith sure came a long ways from bust to leaving a legacy in the NFL. In those first six years it wasn’t too hot. Yes the coaching was depressing, but Smith’s play was just as miserable. Once a competent staff moved in, things changed.

Moral of the story: coaching matters. Especially if you are a first-round rookie quarterback. Sam Darnold is about to get the same sort of stability Alex Smith had. The closest thing he had to a competent coach was Todd Bowles who was unceremoniously canned at the conclusion of the 2018 season—Darnold’s rookie campaign.

Darnold has had some (few) good moments, but the bad has far outweighed the good. The question is are his issues because of bad coaching, or is this another “He is who he is” stories to tell around the camp fire? Well we may get an answer. That is, if he even sees the field.

For starters: he has both Trey Lance and (maybe) Brock Purdy to deal with at training camp. That’s not exactly competing with a raw rookie in Colin Kaepernick which was Smith’s situation during Harbaugh’s first season. That competition alone means we may not see Smith-like salvage. To get the chance to prove everyone wrong, seeing the field certainly helps. Purdy seems to be recovering on schedule and we still don’t know what the 49ers have in Lance.

But stranger things have happened. With the 49ers? Much stranger things. More likely than not, Darnold plays in a few preseason games and then remains with the 49ers through 2023 on his one-year deal. After that, he may find a starting job elsewhere. Or maybe the 49ers go through two quarterbacks again in 2023 and they turn to a QB3 who gets to show what he really can do.

Do you think Sam Darnold is a product of bad coaching? Or is he what he is? You think we’ll see the Alex Smith story re-told?