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As of Christmas Day, 2010, Alex Smith had a career record of 18-31. At 13 games under .500 with a 0.367 winning percentage, it sure seemed like Smith was a draft bust.  His head coach, Mike Singletary, didn’t seem to have much use for him, just like Mike Nolan before him. Before Jim Harbaugh resurrected Smith’s career, it seemed like he would be yet another draft bust.

But since Christ Day, 2010, Smith has had a sparkling 0.713 winning percentage, thanks to a 63-25-1 record. Smith lost 28 of his first 44 starts, but he’s only lost 28 of his last 94 starts. The graph below shows Smith’s career marked in terms of games below/above .500. His low point was 13 games under .500, reached three times (most recently in mid-December 2010) but now he’s a career high 25 games above .500:

That’s a remarkable career arc, but what can we learn from his career?

Is it that supporting cast matters more than we sometimes think? Or coaching?

Or, perhaps, that Smith — like Sam Bradford — has been given chance after chance to resurrect his career because of his lofty draft status?  What would have happened if mid-round picks like Sage Rosenfels or Troy Smith or Matt Flynn or Chris Redman been given chance after chance to succeed?  Or is it that Smith and Bradford ultimately have the skill set that other quarterbacks do not, and it just took them longer to get there?

Smith is not a Hall of Fame quarterback, but he’s undoubtedly a good one. From 2005 to 2010, Smith ranked 32nd out of 34 quarterbacks in ANY/A (minimum 30 starts and 800 attempts); since then, he ranks 12th out of 37 passers by the same measure.

What do you think is the biggest takeaway from Smith’s career?

  • Brock Tillotson

    Gotta be quality of surrounding cast can take a average guy and make him good over a season. Seen this at time with Bradford, Smith, Dalton. I have to believe this doesn’t translate to playoffs though, which seems like a different sport at time.

    • sacramento gold miners

      The supporting cast helps, but situations are different, and I’ll always believe a mediocre QB will reveal himself at some point during the season. And generally speaking, you will still get better playoff results with the better QBs in the postseason. Bradford’s problem has been staying healthy, but I always felt Smith was the better pro prospect coming out of college. Smith just took more time to develop, and in retrospect, the Niners should have kept him as the starter. Smith played in a similar college system Tim Tebow did, and also left school early.

      There have been times when Smith has been too conservative, but overall, it’s been a very good career. If the rumors are true about KC not retaining his services after this season, I think the Chiefs would be making a mistake. The Bengals seemed higher on Dalton at the time he was drafted than other teams, and perhaps they overrated his skillset.

  • Corey

    The big takeaway for me is that coaching matters A LOT. Much more so than supporting cast. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Smith’s improvement coincided with switching from two of the worst offensive coaches in the league (Nolan/Singletary) to two of the best (Harbaugh/Reid), or that Smith’s best season from 2005-10 was the year Norv Turner was his offensive coordinator.

    • Adam

      Coaching and organizational competence. A quarterback drafted onto the Culverhouse Bucs or mid 2000’s Raiders probably would’ve failed regardless of who his coach was, simply because of how dysfunctional the organizations were.

      • Corey

        These are of course related, but the Alex Smith example suggests to me that coaching is more important. The 49ers under the Yorks have hardly been a model of organizational competence. The organization was a mess before Harbaugh got there, a mess during much of his tenure, and a mess again after he left.

  • Adam

    I have no doubt that Smith and Bradford have been given extra chances because of their draft status. I don’t know if this is a good thing or not. In the future, should teams blame the struggles of first round picks on bad situations and keep giving them chances, or give up on them after their rookie contract? These two guys in particular are still middling starters (this season is too small a sample to be sure of any real improvement), so this isn’t a Bradshaw / Aikman situation. If Smith had been drafted onto a team coached by Andy Reid, would he be any better than he is right now? He probably wouldn’t have had such a dismal start to his career, but I don’t think his ceiling would be any higher.

    • McGeorge

      Look at Cam Newtons loft draft status. H’es had 1 good year, other than that he hasn’t been that good.
      If he was a 2nd or 3rd round pick, would he have gotten all those opportunities?

      • Adam

        Cam Newton has been a far better QB than even the good versions of Smith and Bradford. Cam will win you games, whereas Smith and Bradford are merely asked not to lose them. At his worst, Cam has been an average QB. At their worsts, Smith and Bradford have been below replacement level.

        • McGeorge

          Except for that one year, I don’t think Cam has been anything more than average. If he wan’t the #1 overall, he wouldn’t have gotten the contract he did. I’m not saying Smith and Bradford are great, just that Cam has had only 1 good year, and has gotten a lot of mileage out of being the #1 overall.

      • Deacon Drake

        Bradford and Smith are more polished short passers, but are not asked to take the drops and make the downfield passes Newton does. All things equal, Newton can move the ball in any system, while those other 2 are strictly WC guys. Though after the first few weeks of last season, Cam looked like he was done taking the abuse of a running QB.

        Pretty sure Bradford cannot throw the ball more than 42 yards, and Smith once went a whole season without completing a TD to a WR.

        • LightsOut85

          According to FO’s pass-depth % for 2016, Newton only threw 31% of his passes 5 yards (past the LOS) or shorter – lowest in the league. Bradford threw 62% this short (1st most) & Smith 54% (tie 3rd – Joe Flacco was 2nd at 56%).

          If you adjust their completion-%s so that they get 0.1 completion per air-yard that each pass was down the field (ie: 10 air yards = 1 completion, 1 = 0.1, negative air yards = “incomplete”), Cam, Sam & Smith rank 12th, 23rd & 30th (of 31) in %, respectively. QBs who pass more “aggressively” can definitely be at a disadvantage when being measured by common modern metrics.

        • McGeorge

          Bradford has a good arm. I haven’t seen him recently but I’ve seen him make some deep accurate throws without the Joe Flacco wind up.

    • Richie

      I don’t know. It looks like Reid is having Smith throw downfield more than before. Maybe because the receivers are better. But he’s 33 years old. What if Reid started working with him when he was 21 and he was able to protect the ball right away. Then they start having him be more aggressive when he’s 24-25. Maybe he looks more like Troy Aikman at that point.

      So hard to tell.

  • McGeorge

    I’m surprised Jarred Goff has done as well as he has this year.

    1) He’s away from Fisher, and maybe the new staff is comepetant

    2) Its his second year, so you’d expect some improvement

    3) He has better receivers

  • Deacon Drake

    Josh Mccown, Joe Flacco, Matt Cassel, Aaron Brooks… all looked great in flashes with the right OC/HC/QB Coach as well. I think we learned that the 49ers reached for him with first pick (look where Rodgers fell), and don’t forget, they thought so highly of him that they benched him in the middle of his best run of play for a guy who is allegedly not one of the best 96 QBs available.

    If anything, we learned Andy Reid is a mad scientist.

    • Richie

      I don’t think Alex Smith was exactly benched, was he? Didn’t he get hurt, then Kaepernick came in and played well enough to keep Smith on the bench?

      And then, when they were on different teams, Smith’s numbers pretty much improved while Kaepernick’s declined. (I realize teammates had some impact on that.)

      (I agree that Kaepernick probably is one of the best 96 QB’s in the league, but I’m not convinced he’s one of the 32 best.)

  • LightsOut85

    With PY/A on my mind, I was wondering how much of that raise in ANY/A ranking was due to an increase in “not making mistake” rate stats, and after I sorted those finder-tables, that was pretty much confirmed.

    Smith rose 25 spots in INT%, and 22 spots in Comp%, but just 9 spots in Y/A, and 4 spots in TD%. Coaching helped refine him into a player that can take care of the ball, but he never took significant steps forward as a “proactive”, or take-charge, passer.

    I’d be curious as to other examples of this, in NFL history. Passers who looks to become more efficient in their career in ANY/A, but don’t take steps forward in passing for downfield yards or touchdowns. Whether or not QBs generally get much better in these areas at all once they enter the NFL.

    • Adam

      Since Alex Smith became “good” in 2011 with the arrival of Harbaugh, here are his index stats:

      Y/A – 99
      TD% – 98
      INT% – 118

      Even at his best, Smith is still below average at both components of PY/A, and this is before penalizing him for his pitiful air yardage numbers. This proves your thesis that it’s easier to coach mistake reduction than actual passing efficiency.

      Sam Bradford, since leaving the Rams and the supposedly awful supporting cast they gave him:

      Y/A – 97
      TD% – 93
      INT% – 107

      Nearly a carbon copy of Smith. Better at avoiding mistakes, still poor at pushing the ball down the field.

      • Richie

        I’m not sure if you guys are looking down your nose at Smith or not. But to me, this tells me that if you have a QB with average ability, and he can learn to avoid turnovers, it can be the difference between his team winning 8 games and 12 games – that’s pretty cool.

        Though I guess the problem is that a QB who doesn’t have the ability to consistently make big plays probably isn’t going to win a Super Bowl.

        • LightsOut85

          “if you have a QB with average ability, and he can learn to avoid turnovers, it can be the difference between his team winning 8 games and 12 games – that’s pretty cool.”

          But that usually only works if the team also has a pretty good running game AND defense. Not that it’s easy to find that play-making (/true-talented QB), but not many franchises can put together ALL those pieces at the same time. Having that great QB usually keeps you in the running even if you have issues elsewhere.

          Also, when the score does get away from your team, that sort of QB (even with those good units around him) are less suited to make a comeback. (Basically, your point re. the Super Bowl).

          • Corey

            The key is here is that if you have an average QB, you have to pay him like an average QB so you can use the leftover money/cap space on other areas of the team. The problem is if you end up in Stafford/Flacco territory paying an average QB superstar money.

            • LightsOut85

              I don’t disagree, it definitely IS a gamble (though I wouldn’t place Flacco & Stafford on the same level of overpaid – fun read: http://settingedge.com/matthew-stafford-joe-flacco-and-the-quarterback-contract-narrative). There is definitely a place for “game managers”. I think that’s a separate discussion from just QB talent/production evaluation, though. (ie: the original idea being that Smith & similar QBs are overrated in “estimated true talent” by ANY/A).

  • Josh Sanford

    Seven straight years with a winning record is pretty impressive, regardless of the supporting cast.

    On a totally unrelated note, did anyone notice that his draft-mate Aaron Rogers had a crazy day of check downs today? This game will be remembered for a game-winning drive after a game-tying drive, but there was more to it than that. He had EIGHT completions today to Montgomery today for 15 (!!!) total yards. And other guys had similarly, though not as drastically, abysmal yards-per-catch.

    Very interesting day for Rogers.

    • Rodgers throws his fair share of checkdowns, but he was playing large amounts of Sunday’s game with his 4th and 5th string offensive tackles protecting him. He was sacked 5 times in the first half trying to stay in the pocket. I’m guessing he decided at halftime that a 2 yard pass is better than a 7 yard loss.