Alex Smith stepped into football’s biggest shoes when the 49ers selected him with the NFL’s No. 1 overall pick in 2005. In a town that expects godliness from its quarterbacks, he was never Joe Montana, Steve Young or even Colin Kaepernick. But throughout his eight years with the club, he embodied the purest ideals of team sports.
According to a CBS Sports report Sunday, the 49ers have sown up a deal that will send Smith packing as soon as the NFL’s new league year begins on March 12. If the reports are accurate, the trade will end one of the most tumultuous tenures in the history of Bay Area sports.
With the exception of Barry Zito, no recent athlete has endured more criticism from local fans and media than Smith. As the 49ers’ top pick, Smith fulfilled the role of franchise goat for six years while the front office shuffled through head coaches, searching for a navigator to turn the ship around.
But as the frustration poured down, Smith refused to make excuses or point his finger toward other plausible scapegoats to ease the load off of his shoulders.
He could have called out Mike Nolan or Mike Singletary; playing quarterback under those guys must be like trying to find your way out of a forest without a compass. How about the rotating door at offensive coordinator (seven during his tenure) and quarterbacks coach (six in total)? The difficulty of mastering a playbook that’s constantly in flux? He didn’t complain about his teammates, either, even though the 49ers had fewer Pro Bowl selections from 2005 to 2010 (11) than they did during the past two years alone.
Instead, Smith took every hit, picked himself off the turf, went back into the huddle and tried again.
Things finally turned around when Jim Harbaugh rolled into Santa Clara in 2011, providing the support and vision that Smith needed. With Harbaugh, Smith compiled a 20-6 record, but he was still derided for being a glorified “game manager.”
Of course, the defining moment of Smith’s career in San Francisco will forever be the day that Harbaugh made the decision to go with the “hot hand” at quarterback.
In the end, Smith didn’t get the chance to lead his team to the Super Bowl this year, but his crowing achievement with the 49ers might be the class and dignity he demonstrated as Kaepernick’s backup down the stretch.
In an era of sports where individual achievements are accentuated on “SportsCenter” night after night, Smith provided a living example for coaches across the country that are teaching kids how to put “team” before “me.”
Harbaugh asked Smith to accept a less prominent role on the team and rather than dividing the locker room like Brett Favre, he complied without reducing his level of commitment.
He shared his knowledge and experience with Kaepernick, putting aside his selfish interests for the benefit of the team.
With his expected departure, Smith’s name will likely never appear alongside that of Montana and Young in the annals of 49ers’ Super Bowl history. But if somebody compiles a list of the all-time “team players” that have ever suited up for a Bay Area pro sports team, Smith’s name certainly deserves to be near the top.
Paul Gackle is a regular contributor to The San Francisco Examiner and also writes at www.gacklereport.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @GackleReport.