Okay, I’ll say it out loud and in public. I think nearly everyone underestimates Alex Smith and his record and his abilities. I also think nearly everyone underestimates his intelligence and his motivation.
Last season the buzzword was “game manager.” Pundits, analysts, radio and TV announcers and even highly touted sports writers used the term repeatedly. Explanations were made often the Alex Smith was an all right quarterback in a system where the defense carried the games, but he would never be an elite quarterback.
The implication being that Alex Smith was a caretaker, held over until the 49ers could find a real QB.
He had the best year of his career in 2011 with only one dependable tight end and one dependable wide receiver, while both were targeted and even double-teamed by opposing defenses. With a coach that revamped the offense so it would be efficient even without high point production, Alex Smith led the 49ers to a 13-3 regular season record. Then he topped it off by outgunning Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints in a classic playoff game.
Not bad for a game manager.
The raw fact is that all good quarterbacks are game managers. Using the term ‘game manager’ as a pejorative is a mistake in semantics.
Any QB who cannot manage the game will lead their team to a losing season.
Game management means being able to decide which plays will work in any situation. Any play called has many options, depending on the response of the defense. The quarterback needs to almost instantaneously decide and act to counter defenses’ actions and work his team down the field.
He needs to know and decide correctly which receiver is open, when to throw the ball away to avoid a sack or a loss, when to throw to the check down receiver, usually a running back or tight end loitering near the line of scrimmage.
When those QB decisions are made correctly most of the time, the team wins games. When they are poorly made, the team loses games. That is why some quarterbacks with cannon arms do not work out as winning quarterbacks. The arm without a great brain is a loser in the long term.
There is such a thing as what coaches label ‘game smarts.’ A QB with game smarts may not have a cannon arm or the best weapons to throw at, but his decisions make his team successful.
That is the essence of leadership. That is management of the business of football in the purest sense of the word. As a coach or a fan, what you want most from your quarterback is game management.
Then, when Alex Smith began to demonstrate a propensity for winning game after game, the pundits turned to the term “elite quarterback’ in frustration over his succeeding in spite of their predictions.
The term elite quarterback is more vague than the term game management. How can one compare the styles of game managers like Joe Montana and Brett Favre? Both are called elite but their styles, talents and physical capabilities and consistency vary widely.
So the term elite is applied using an undefined subjective judgment, not by using win-loss records or any other statistical measurement. It seems to me to be used to describe a QB that is well liked by the media, whether or not he is well liked by his teammates.
Any QB is an elite quarterback if he wins a Super Bowl.
My theory is that the media has a psychological issue. People tend to get into thinking habits and fail to critically reconsider old decisions and habitual descriptions. They tend to put people into stereotypical boxes. When the actuality goes against the expectation, frustration results.
And then they often fail to recognize evidence that the box assigned to that person is no longer pertinent.
This season Alex Smith has more weapons to throw the ball to than he has seen as an NFL QB. He has a better coach than he has ever had. He has a better team around him than he has ever had. And for the first time in his NFL experience, he has a year’s experience with the within the coach’s system.
This year he is more relaxed, more decisive, more accurate and capable of throwing longer passes. His chances of taking the 49ers all the way this year are greatly improved over 2011.
Let’s rethink the descriptions of Alex Smith. Let us drop the habitual name-calling, stereotyping and subtle put-downs and call the plays and the games objectively.
Let Alex Smith play. Give him his due. And when he outperforms his 2011 record, be ready to say you underestimated him.
He will do that, you know, and admitting it is the least you can do.