Alex Smith signed a three-year contract with the San Francisco 49ers for $24 million in the spring of 2012; this spring, season he'll probably be looking for a new job.
Smith got off to a great start in 2012, leading the 49ers to a 6-2 record and putting up impressive stats, but a concussion sidelined Smith and the reigns were handed over to Colin Kaepernick. The 49ers haven't looked back and are now headed to the Super Bowl. Smith has said he "couldn't be happier," but this likely spells the end of his tenure in San Francisco.
How did the 49ers reach this point and what does the future hold for the former No. 1 draft pick?
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How'd we get to this point?
San Francisco selected Smith with the first overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft out of Utah, picking Smith over Aaron Rodgers. For years Smith struggled, moving in and out of the starting lineup without much success on the field before Jim Harbaugh arrived in 2011.
Last season, under a one-year deal, Smith led the 49ers to a 13-3 record and the NFC Championship game. He had a career year, passing for over 3,000 yards for the first time and posting a rating of 90.7. After a brief flirtation with Peyton Manning, the 49ers resigned Smith to a three-year, $24 million contract last offseason and it appeared he would be the starting quarterback for the foreseeable future.
Smith continued to improve early in 2012, putting up career bests across the board and leading the 49ers to a 6-2 record. But he suffered a concussion during a Week 10 game against the St. Louis Rams and was replaced by second year quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Harbaugh had traded up to select Kaepernick in the second round of the 2011 NFL Draft and was impressed with his athleticism. Kaepernick and the 49ers tied the Rams, but when Smith remained sidelined with a concussion the following week, Kaepernick shined against the tough defense of the Chicago Bears.
Kaepernick retained the starting job even when Smith was healthy again, relegating Smith to the role of backup. Before Harbaugh made his final decision, it was clear that he felt both quarterbacks were playing well enough to warrant the starting job:
"Alex Smith is our starting quarterback. He has not done anything to lose that job. In fact, he's playing at a very high level. Also, Colin Kaepernick, you can't categorize him as a backup quarterback, because he's started games and played very well in those games."
The 49ers went 6-2 in full games under Smith and 5-2 in full games under Kaepernick during the regular season, tying the one game that Kaepernick filled in for Smith. (Obviously San Francisco has won two playoff games with Kaepernick as well.) Apart from the records, how did the Niners offense stack up under the two QBs?
In the eight complete games Smith started this season, San Francisco averaged 23.6 points per game. In Kaepernick's seven games, they averaged 26.3. Smith finished the season with a 104.1 rating, slightly higher than Kaepernick's 98.3 rating. Smith had the higher touchdown percentage, 6.0 compared to 4.6, but Kaepernick had the better interception percentage at 1.4 compared to Smith's 2.3.
Of course, the big difference is Kaepernick's running ability. While Smith is mobile and able to run, Kaepernick is a huge running threat and adds the read option to the game. Oddly enough however, the 49ers averaged more rushing yards per game with Smith at quarterback than under Kaepernick (168.6 to 137, Rams tie excluded). But between the constant threat of a quarterback run bringing defenders up and his rocket arm, Kaepernick threw 10 more passes over 20 yards than Smith did (32 to 22).
Regardless of the relative even statistical comparison, it is clear the job now belongs to Kaepernick. He was dominant against the Packers in the Divisional round of the playoffs, setting a quarterback rushing record with 181 yards on the ground. And after digging a 17-0 hole, Kaepernick led the Niners to victory in the NFC Championship using his arm, completing 16 of 21 passes.
Smith accepts his new role and wants to do whatever he can to help win for the time being. "There's a part of you that wants to be out there playing," Smith admitted at the end of the regular season. He went on to say that although it is hard, "I have a new role and I accept that role. I want to try to help this team win."
What the future holds
While the 49ers would love to keep Smith as a backup, it's not a feasible option. Smith is expected to earn $8.5 million in 2013 ($7.5 with a $1 million roster bonus), far too much money for a guy who might not play in any games over the course of the season. Kaepernick, meanwhile, is still on his rookie deal through the end of 2014 making him one of the cheaper starting quarterbacks in the league.
The coaches and fans love both quarterbacks, but retaining both does not make sense financially. When Smith received a standing ovation from the fans in a Week 17 relief appearance he called it humbling and said, "we've been through a lot, the fans and me." Ultimately though, Smith wants to be a starter and will embrace the opportunity to do so with a new team in a new city.
Ideally the Niners would like to trade Smith, but if they can't find a deal that works they may be forced to cut him outright. Either way, with a weak crop of quarterbacks in the draft and many teams looking to make a change at the position, Smith should have his fair share of suitors.
Expect to hear many potential landing spots for Smith, most notably the Jets, Eagles, Cardinals, Bills, Jaguars, and Chiefs. Of course, before he considers the 2013 season he has a Super Bowl to prepare for and will be ready to lead his team should the opportunity arise.