At the highest level of sport, the difference between a star and an also-ran often boils down to just one thing: Confidence. And that's something of which San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith has been robbed.
Blame Smith's coaches, past and present. In the NFL, head coaches are responsible for more than just game planning and play calling; it's their job to ensure players believe deep within themselves that they have what it takes to win. Particularly for quarterbacks — the most high-profile and important position in American sports — it's not enough to have a strong arm, quick feet, and masterful playbook knowledge. Quarterbacks have to step out onto the field each week not just thinking, but knowing, that no one can lead their team to victory but them.
Let's turn back the clock to 2004, Smith's junior year at the University of Utah. He completed 214 passes for a 67.5 percent success rate. He was one of the top quarterbacks in the country — not only statistically remarkable, but quick-thinking on the field. He was a good judge of his own ability; he knew which plays worked, and he executed them cleanly. During the two years under his leadership, Utah's offense seemed unstoppable. They won 21 games, and lost only once. In 2004, the team was unbeaten, and ranked sixth in the country.
That year, Smith was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy and named The Sporting News National Player of the Year. The next spring, he entered the NFL draft. He was picked first overall by the 49ers, who passed over Aaron Rodgers — who has since won a Super Bowl and NFL MVP quarterbacking the Green Bay Packers.
Things haven't gone as well for Smith since. From the moment he arrived in the NFL, he struggled to live up to his potential. In his first year, Smith threw 11 interceptions and fumbled the ball nine times in just nine games. The following year, he threw 16 picks. He seemed easily rattled and uncomfortable with his responsibility and fame and the high expectations placed on his young shoulders.
Smith and the Niners waded through mediocrity for years. The coaching staff turned over repeatedly. In 2010, the 49ers hired as their head coach the blunt-spoken and hard-headed Mike Singletary, which didn't work out well for Smith.
Singletary was a legendary linebacker who played 11 years for the Chicago Bears. He was twice named the league's Defensive Player of the Year. But his physical genius didn't translate into mentoring leadership.
Smith's weaknesses were obvious to the entire league. He had to throw crisp, short passes to succeed. But Singletary pushed Smith deep, and Smith flailed. In 2009 and 2010, Smith threw 22 interceptions in 22 games. Singletary got frustrated, and he vocally took it out on Smith, which only seemed to make the increasingly fragile quarterback worse. Indeed, if you watched Smith at the time, you'd wonder why he was ever drafted. When I was photographing the Niners in 2010, I sure did.
Tensions ran high on the field at Candlestick Park. Never in my life have I heard a stadium boo its own team so loudly and for so long. The more fans screamed, the worse Smith played. The years of near-constant criticism and doubt had clearly gotten to him. Soon enough, fans began to chant, "We want Carr" — referring to David Carr, the 49ers' backup at the time. Smith looked devastated, and I prayed for those games to end quickly.
Singletary is not known for being a gentle man. And indeed, he publicly humiliated Smith. In mid-October 2011, in a game against the Philadelphia Eagles, cameras caught Singletary furiously yelling at Smith on the sidelines. In late December 2010, Singletary again got into a sideline confrontation, this time with another player. Ownership finally took action and fired the coach.
After several middling seasons in the NFL, capped off by two abysmal years under Singletary, Smith faced low expectations. But the strong leadership of his new head coach, Jim Harbaugh, suddenly drew out the quarterback everyone had thought Smith would be.
Harbaugh came to San Francisco in 2011 from Stanford University, where he had coached and molded Andrew Luck, a two-time Heisman finalist who is now the star rookie quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts. During Harbaugh's first season in San Francisco, Smith enjoyed an amazing renaissance, leading the Niners to their first NFC Championship appearance since 1994. In 16 games, Smith threw only five interceptions and passed for a career-high 3,144 yards.
Smith continued his strong run this season. But then, after having been knocked out by a concussion, he was prevented from playing in a critical game a couple weeks ago against the fearsome Chicago Bears. Backup Colin Kaepernick stepped in and absolutely dismantled Chicago's highly touted defense. All of a sudden, San Francisco had a quarterback controversy on its hands. With another big game coming up, against the surging New Orleans Saints, Smith was cleared as healthy to play. And then Harbaugh decided that Kaepernick, not Smith, would start against the Saints.
We can only assume that Smith's fragile psyche, which had been absolutely shattered in the Singletary years before being carefully rebuilt by Harbaugh, was suddenly a mess once again.
On Wednesday, Harbaugh announced in a strangely wishy-washy way that Kaepernick would start this Sunday's game against the St. Louis Rams, but that he wouldn't pick one quarterback over the other. "Both have earned it," Harbaugh said. "Deserve it. Alex over a long period of time. Colin by virtue of the last three games. Tips the scale, Colin, I believe, has the hot hand. We'll go with Colin. And we'll go with Alex. Both our guys."
You could be forgiven for saying, "Huh?"
If past is prologue, then Harbaugh's decision to start Kaepernick, at best, will shake Smith's confidence. At worst, it will shatter it. Smith is a player who clearly needs the unflinching support of a head coach. But if any coach can pull off making both quarterbacks feel wanted and confident, it's Jim Harbaugh. Fail, and the Niners and their coach, who prides himself in developing quarterbacks, will lose Smith for good.