I can’t necessarily pinpoint when, but somewhere along the way, we simply lost our way.
We lost our edge as sports fans. We compromised our principles and cashed out, succumbing to a barrage of mindless, useless and mostly scripted and contrived banter focused around two words: “elite” and “legacy.”
We lost our poise and focus and creativity.
In essence, we were brainwashed.
Well, some of us anyway.
Truthfully speaking, baseball’s steroids scandal forced us to evaluate, long-term, how some of the luminaries of the game would be remembered. Bonds and Clemens opened up the legacy dialogue, and that was more than acceptable. It fit. How would two titans of the game, both cheaters, be remembered? Legacy. Fair game.
The word was also quite popular during Phil Mickelson’s erratic yet riveting quest for his first major. How would a player with such undeniable skill and creativity around the green be viewed without a major on his mantle? I get it. I didn’t follow golf during Greg Norman’s reign, but I imagine the word was used in an effort to provide clarity and help quantify his peaks and valleys, especially at Augusta.
Same with Lebron for a few years, and to a lesser extent, before that, Kobe without Shaq.
In terms of the sweet science, before Mike Tyson completely lost his mind, enthusiasts of the ring established their own criteria developed over decades of watching championship tilts and hot prospects.
Long before sports radio cemented itself as a viable outlet, society has always turned other venues into their own, personal afternoon drive slot: bars, locker rooms and tailgates all fit the bill. It’s what men do. We did it as kids in the street and we do it at family BBQ’s as adults.
But what the hell is so hard about the word “elite?” Really, there is nothing nebulous about the term or what it represents.
e·lite or é·lite (-lt, -lt)
b. The best or most skilled members of a group: the football team’s elite.
Does that describe Alex Smith? Of course not.
When referencing the elites of any sport, their greatness should be undeniable; their talents rare and tantalizing; their production and accomplishments beyond question. To me, that is what the word “elite” has always represented.
But in this watered-down world of “every-kid-gets-a-trophy,” that list has been distorted. Scrubs gets paid like stars and stars are treated like Babe Ruth and Jim Brown. The actual superstars? The deserving ones are dissected like lab rats by Skip Bayless, their true greatness eventually diminished.
Which brings me to Alex Smith, and his remarkable journey from the QB grave yard: saved by Jim Harbaugh, and currently, one of the leaders on the NFL’s best team, the San Francisco 49ers.
Excluding the 2008 season, Alex Smith has led the 49ers to records of 2-5, 7-9, 2-5, 5-5, and 3-7 before last season’s 13-3 resurrection. I’m constantly reminded (now) by 49er fans that a QB should be judged ultimately by the scoreboard, not stats. After glancing at his career win totals, are you sure that’s how you want to begin your defense of Alex Smith?
I didn’t think so.
In 2005, the same year Smith was drafted # 1 overall our of Utah, Apple introduced the first IPod Shuffle. The IPod Shuffle! That’s a while ago, and while fans hate the fact the first 6 years of the Alex Smith Era were painful ones, it doesn’t change the fact that they actually occurred!
2005 NFL Draft
1. Alex Smith, 49ers
2. Ronnie Brown, Dolphins
3. Braylon Edwards, Browns
4. Cedric Benson, Bears
5. Cadillac Williams, Buccaneers
6. Pacman Jones, Titans
7. Troy Williamson, Vikings
8. Antrel Rolle, Cardinals
9. Carlos Rogers, Redskins
10. Mike Williams, Lions
Almost every name on that list is a bust, criminal, or retread, with the exception of Rolle and Rogers, and now Smith. Their careers have already been defined. In the very literal sense of the word, failures, at least on Sundays. And while Alex continues to rehabilitate his image, some numbers are undeniable. Last season, the 49ers ranked 31st in 3rd down conversions. A closer look at the breakdown paints an interesting picture:
1. Saints (56.7%)
31. 49ers (29.4%)
I don’t know about you, but if given the choice, I kind of like the Brees-Rivers-Rodgers-Roethliesberger-Brady aisle a whole lot better than the Fitzpatrick-Skelton/Kolb-Tebow-Smith-Bradford bin.
Last season, despite having an above average ground presence, the 49ers ranked 30th in red zone scoring percentage (TD’s only). Only one team in the NFL threw the ball less the entire season, and again, just looking at the numbers, Smith ranked 19th in total passing yards with 3,144. Pedestrian numbers, at best.
This season, Alex is off to a superb start, leading his team to a pair of high-profile wins (Packers, Lions) while completing 70.4% of his passes. He’s currently on pace for 32 TD’s, and has yet to throw a pick, which he hasn’t done, seemingly, in years. He has additional weapons at his disposal, and the offense is far more diverse and dangerous than it was a season ago. Barring injuries, the 49ers appear destined to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. Who’s better? The Giants? Philly? Dallas? Saints? Please.
The point of this, really, is not to knock Alex Smith, but rather, to more accurately identify what he is at this stage of his career. And after watching him in person all of last season and the first two weeks this year, here’s my scouting report:
Tough, mobile, cerebral and his accuracy in the short to intermediate routes is good. His arm strength is average to slightly above average. He senses pressure well in the pocket, and has silenced, for the most part, his once happy feet. He’s learned to take control at the line of scrimmage, and his teammates love him.
But does Alex Smith make his teammates better, or has he finally been insulated by a great coaching staff and placed in a system where the defense sets the tone and offense is asked, merely, to be competent?
You see, in a lot of ways, we’ve been debating the wrong thing. It’s not about whether or not Alex Smith is elite. Who cares. For the record, in my opinion, he’s not, and he never will be. Too much has transpired in what was, until last year, a disappointing career. But right now, in 2012, he’s good.
And right now, he’s the absolutely perfect QB for what just might be, a perfect team.
After all these years, Alex Smith finally fits.
But after years of watching Dan Marino, Jim Kelly and Tom Brady carve up the AFC East, my definition of elite appears to be very, very different than some out here in the Bay.
And I’m perfectly fine with that.