Serious and thoughtful football pundits are debating whether Alex Smith is the best quarterback in the NFL.
Smith must find that hilarious.
In 2014 he gave a witty, wise commencement speech at Utah, his alma mater. Given an honorary doctorate he joked he might put “Dr. Smith” on the back of his Chiefs jersey.
Then in a riff about experiencing adversity in his career, he asks the entire graduating class to stand and boo him. He urges them on — “Louder!” — and has one section chant “You’re a bust.”
“And those were the home fans,” Smith said.
Now that it seems likely that backup QB E.J. Manuel will take the field for the Raiders, and as the baying from 49ers fans to “Put C.J. Beathard in” increases, it is worth pondering the dark art of finding and nurturing a quarterback.
First, the 49ers. They are 0-4 and quarterback Brian Hoyer surely knew he was going to take the heat if there was a slow start. Some of it is deserved. As Kyle Shanahan said this week, “When you have the time and you’ve got guys open, you need to hit them.” At times Hoyer has not.
But I would also point out that Hoyer’s getting the bejeepers knocked out of him. It’s not just the sacks, but the shots after the ball is gone. How many times has his helmet been knocked off?
Which has an effect. Jet across the bay and check everybody’s favorite superstar-in-waiting, Derek Carr. For whatever reason — and no, it is not Carr’s stand on the national anthem — the line is not protecting him as well as last year.
Carr has been taking incoming fire since the first game. Consequently, he hasn’t been as sharp. This isn’t a revelation. You’ve probably noticed how exasperated Carr has been after errant throws.
And that was a precursor to the inevitable injury last week. The line falters, the hits keep coming and the show pony pulls up lame. It’s a sad, familiar narrative.
So just sayin’, if Shanahan puts in Beathard, the kid’s going to be the one having his bejeepers knocked out. Is that a route to success?
Let’s look at another trendy, young quarterback who was fan-shouted into the lineup of a poor team. Everybody knew Jared Goff had the NFL skill set when he was at Cal. Touch passes, long throws and quick reads. No wonder he was the first pick in the draft.
Last season he was inserted into the L.A. Rams’ lineup after nine games. And he was horrible. Brutally sacked, confused and disoriented, he was already making “biggest NFL busts” lists.
In the off-season the Rams upgraded both the line and receiver corps. New coach Sean McVay installed an offense more like what Goff ran at Cal. How’d that work?
This week the Rams PR staff calculates that Goff’s passer rating after four games is the second-highest in franchise history. Granted, it’s just a quarter of the season, but still.
Let’s be honest, all of us — fans, media and even owners — are suckers for the next new, shiny thing. When Robert Griffin III won the Heisman in 2011 he was going to change the game forever.
Washington gave up (this is not a misprint) three first-round draft picks and a second to draft him. In his first year he was spectacular. He ran wild, gaining over 800 yards.
The 49ers put Colin Kaepernick in that same year. He also ran wild, and the stories took off. This is what a quarterback looks like in the new world.
Which we heard when Steve Young joined the NFL. Although younger fans may not recall it, Young could run with anyone. But he became a Super Bowl champ because he had a revelation.
“The job is to deliver the ball from the pocket,” he said in 2014. “It’s been proven to me over and over again that that’s the championship job.”
Now how do you develop that? Well, you could try the Alex Smith method:
Draft him No. 1 so expectations are sky high, play him before he is ready, fail to protect him so he gets clobbered and eventually injured, make him play (and question his toughness) while injured and give him seven offensive coordinators in seven years.
And then, as he says in the speech, when the team finally puts together a Super Bowl year “and I was playing my best football ever,” get injured and be told you’ve lost your job.
“The only time I set foot on the field at the Super Bowl,” he said, “was for the coin toss. Because I was technically still one of the captains.”
Now, is this a prediction that Smith will take the Chiefs to the Super Bowl? God no. A million things can happen. Historically the Chiefs’ success in playoff games isn’t great. And there are probably analytics somewhere that can prove Smith is not the best quarterback.
But right now he is the quarterback of the only undefeated team in the NFL. And you have to think it would be awfully sweet for him, finally, to take that symbolic step on the field as a starting quarterback in a Super Bowl.
Just like we all knew he would be. Right?
Contact C.W. Nevius at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @cwnevius