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The Sullying of Alex Smith

Let the love fest for Trent Dilfer begin.

When Alex Smith went out with a separated shoulder, opinion ran the gamut on when he would see action again, whether or not he would require surgery, and how this injury would affect the 49ers season.  Smith started against New Orleans, and after every throw he would grimace and pull on his shoulder pad at the obvious discomfort in his shoulder.  Time after time his throws sailed on him, something they had never done before.

We saw Smith go to the sideline where trainers removed his pads, pressed his shoulder down, taped it up, and he came back out.  After the game Smith was praised by his coach for his toughness, and we all hailed him as finally becoming the leader on this team.  However, this sort of thing continued against Atlanta, and finally the debacle against Seattle on Monday Night Football.  Fans declared on the message boards that something was still medically wrong with Alex Smith, and he shouldn’t even be out there.  Cries abounded that Mike Nolan was mortgaging the future and wasting his very expensive quarterback of the future.

After the Seattle game, the obvious truth came out:  Alex Smith was still hurt, and it was affecting his play.  Now, Mike Nolan had two roads to pick here, and unfortunately for him and us, he took the low one.  For the entire length of the losing streak, we heard Mike Nolan say that the losses came down to execution by the players, and in large part he was right.  From Wide Receiver drops to Offensive line play, I’ve screamed this from the mountaintops, and it’s very fair to say.

However, Nolan also failed to realize the ineptitude of his Offensive Coordinator until Week Eleven!  The medical staff also apparently failed to recognize that Smith’s ligaments were still torn!  How does this escape doctors reading an MRI?  In fact, we were flat lied to because they said it appeared that the ligaments had reattached and had scarred over properly, and the only thing that remained was to play through pain. 

We now know that to be patently false, for in fact the ligaments are still torn and have not scarred over, and Smith may after all require surgery.  We also now understand that the agressive rehabilitation strained Smith’s forearm, rendering him incapable of gripping the ball properly, directly resulting in the sailing throws.

Mike Nolan continued the player execution mantra, saying Smith was fine and merely lacked confidence throwing the football, and Smith had finally had enough.  When Nolan decried his quarterback going to the media first, Smith was asked about it.  He said he did in fact tell Nolan that he was not up to par, but that he was apparently misunderstood.  Judging by Mike Nolan’s historic inability to:

  1. Understand offense
  2. Realize Hostler’s shortcomings
  3. Properly use timeouts
  4. Bench an offensive lineman for bad play
  5. Bench a wide receiver for bad play
  6. Know how a player did BEFORE reviewing game film…

Is it really any surprise that he would misunderstand what Smith is telling him?

Instead, after praising Smith’s toughness, Nolan said, “Everybody’s sore.  I’m sore, but do I talk about it?  No.”  Nolan gave us the old “Tom Brady played well last year with a forearm strain,” without mentioning the severity of said strain.  When Smith’s agent Tom Condon said that the rehabilitation from the injury was too much too soon, thereby causing the forearm strain, Mike Nolan said, “I respect your question, but I don’t respect the source,” a backhanded insult to Condon. When Julian Peterson of the Seahawks said that Smith was still hurt, Nolan lambasted him as not being a doctor.  Turns out he was right, eh Mike?

Finally, in the most astounding episode of this saga to date, Mike Nolan apparently stated some time after the Rams game, that Dilfer’s performance in that game was “the best quarterbacking play since I came to the team.”  If this is true, this is the most ridiculous, most asenine, most detrimental thing to say in regard to his relationship with Alex Smith.  Trent Dilfer threw for 47%, 232 yards, and 2 interceptions, for a quarterback rating somewhere around 48.  Last I checked, Alex Smith has had a slew games better than that, most especially last year’s performance in Seattle.

To be told Trent Dilfer is a better quarterback for throwing no touchdowns and two interceptions can only come across poorly to Smith.  He is the youngest starting quarterback in the NFL, and one of the youngest starters ever.  It is hardly fair to say that with the offense finally having gotten on track that Smith had ample chance to show his improvement.  It is so easy to forget that Smith’s accurate passes have been dropped, or that the line failed to open any lanes for Frank Gore in roughly every game in which Smith played.  And we cannot understate the effect of his injury.

Mike Nolan may be thinking that if he ticks Alex off enough, the fire in his belly will be unquenchable and he’ll develop that devil-may-care, stay out of my way attitude displayed by Brett Favre, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.  He’s walking a fine line here, though.  On the other side lies the crushing of a kid’s confidence and livelihood, or the forced trade of a commodity any number of NFL teams would jump at the chance to acquire.  It’s okay, though: maybe Nolan will part with him for a 4th round pick.  I’m not worried about Alex Smith.  I’m worried that we might lose him for good.

As far as Trent Dilfer is concerned, his whole career has been marked by average games followed by terrible performances.  Dilfer has long since been crowned king of the letdown.  He’s so old that he was a bust before Akili Smith was a bust.  He’s the only Super Bowl-winning quarterback to be traded by his team the following season.  As a matter of fact, his career passer rating is about equal to Smith’s rating from last season. 

Over the course of his career, Dilfer has failed to be cognizant of his own limitations.  Whenever people praise him enough, whenever he has a game most would consider good, he begins to think of himself as John Elway.  In his Super Bowl winning season he played in 11 games, threw for 1500 yards on 59% completions, threw 12 touchdowns to 11 interceptions and finished the season with a rating of 76.6.  His career average is 6.6 yards per completion, nowhere close to the elites of the league, and he has never thrown for more than 2,800 yards in a season.

Conversely, last season Smith threw for 2980 yards, 58% completions, 11 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, and finished with a rating of 74.8 in his second year as a pro.  So drag the name of Alex Smith through the mud, 49er fans.  It’s so very easy to do. 

After all, we have the guy who was traded because Elvis Grbac was seen as an upgrade to a Super Bowl winner.

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7 Comments so far
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Nice one. I kind of see this in the same way I see Nolan’s over-reliance on structure and process. He’s not naturally a dynamic or creative decision maker. Rather than doing something like rotating QBs quarter-to-quarter or changing the game plan based on a player’s unique skills or the flow of the game, he sets out a broad strategy and sticks with it. This is probably a good thing for years 1-2 of a rebuilding process, but won’t take the team to the next level. To me, his comments are a natural byproduct of Nolan’s rigidity, where the implicit message is “Don’t challenge the hierarchy.”

Along these lines, Nolan didn’t react fast enough to Smith’s troubles this year. He let him persist in a horrid environment where he lost confidence and started developing bad habits. Nolan doesn’t always exhibit the kind of 6th sense that the great coaches have, where they find the subtle things that make a huge difference. And, just like your article states, this points even more to the need for really dynamic coordinators. Siefert had some similar tendencies as Nolan, but almost always had really dynamic offensive coordinators.

All that said, I think the jury is still out on Smith. As I’ve said in the past, I think it’s extremely unlikely he’ll be a great one and fairly unlikely that he’ll be a good one, but he deserves a better shot. Along these lines, I just read a Q & A in the BEE where someone asked about bringing in Chad Pennington next year. Barrows’ response was that he’s too weak-armed for the Turner system. Maybe so, but he could hardly be worse than Dilfer; in fact, I’d be willing to bet he’d be a whole lot better. He’s smart and accurate, and he wasn’t playing all that poorly before he was benched. I would love to the 49ers bring in a legitimate starter like Pennington next year and have him compete with Smith. After several losing seasons, this would be the only fair way to go for Smith, the team…and the fans!

Comment by Rice_and_Beans

I agree that Alex Smith’s injury was mismanaged, and there is plenty of fault to go around, from Nolan’s public comments to Smith’s rehabilitation and flawed decison to race back. Blame machismo or insecurity, but Smith’s ego played a role.

As far as I can tell, Alex Smith’s best statistics are nearly identical to Dilfer’s single, Super Bowl season stats of 2000, which you mock. Dilfer has also has seasons with a QB rating of 92 (2001), 82.8 (1997), and 76.9 (2005). You don’t strengthen your case for Alex Smith by belittling Trent Dilfer, especially when Smith’s statistics barely measure upt to Dilfer’s. Dilfer has limitations, but your comparison suggests that Smith does too. Neither are elite, franchise QB’s…their stats define journeymen careers, typical of backups.

Point of fact, nobody failed to recognize that Smith’s ligaments were still torn. Nobody is that ignorant…not Nolan, not the 49ers’ trainers, and not Alex Smith. Ligaments don’t reattach themselves without surgery. Smith got a first and second opinion, and he was told as much both times. He was also told that he could do no further damage to his shoulder. The problem is, his mechanics were flawed and he strained his forearm…developing painful tendonitis in his inflamed elbow.

If you are going to blame Nolan for Hostler, then Smith is responsible for his mechanics. If there was poor commincations between the two, Smith could have been perfectly clear…”my arm is searing pain so I won’t be suiting up.” I think Nolan would have understood when his QB remained dressed in casual clothes as the kickoff approached.

Comment by TANK

As far as filling the shoes of qbs like Montana,young, and even garcia go, the pressure has been heavy on such a young alex smith. Yet, his flaws in his game are so freakin embarrasing if your a overall number one pick. HE cannot read blitzes (and yes his o line is horrible this year) cannot check down recievers,once in a blue moon can feel the pocket collapsing, and has absolutely no confidence in his deep route ball. DId anyone see the falcons game where gilmore had the d backs beat by like 10 yards? overthrown by another 10 yards and you have another 3 and out. He is a college gone pro monumental bust! In the last 3 years he is the LOWEST qb rated quarterback and as Parcells said before the monday nite seattle disaster, after 3 years, you have it or you dont. NOw everyone says, its his injury or his 3rd coordinator in 3 years or his line, or defense not producing. THis year we have a top 10 defense no question about it. excluding the saints game, where Nolan got completely outcoached against Payton we have a ravens like d. Willis is amazing as a rookie,(by the way) and have had numerous oppertunities to score from a result of a defense giving us great field positon and Smith CANNOT produce points. Our coordinator is a joke, which I blame Nolan for that and waiting till our much hyped playoff season is in the toilet to bring someone else in but Smith is supposed to be so smart? he cant adapt? did anyone watch Rodgers 2nd game debut against dallas? How awesome did he look! he has had no nfl on field experience and just tore it up against a solid dallas d. I am so done with the Alex smith excuses. We are a 5 time super bowl champion franchise with 21 strait seasons with double digit records! INSANE! Smith cannot win without GOre, which is so evidently obvious this year and defense or not, hes a bust and cancer for our team. Either Mike goes for building a franchise around him or Smith goes if anyone wants him. Mike gave up a 1st round pick to the Pats and now we have no quarterback for next year either. It kills me to watch us sink in by far the weakest nfl division, after going on a stienbrenner spending spree. Singletary will get tons of offers this year and no other coach wants to play for York, so what do we do? new stadium in the works and fans giving up until the 49ers turn it around. Fire Nolan and dont let him forget all his suits while cleaning out his office and start over with a new qb. Tim Tibo anybody? p.s. I hope the real number one qb (tom brady and not that other guy who sux in the playoffs) will destroy dallas in the super bowl!

Comment by gore21

Woah! Get your facts straight! Nolans: “the best quarterbacking play since I came to the team” comment about Dilfer came after the Cardinals game this Sunday – and except maybe for the final game against Seattle last season, where Alex Smith played really well in the 4th. q. – he’s absolutely right!

You make it sound as if Smith was excellent before the injury which is absolutely not the case. After seeing Alex Smith play the last three seasons there is only one conclusion (even if it really hurts: he is not NFL material!

Comment by Soeren Larsen

Finally… I’ve been waiting for a piece like this on the Nolan/Smith dynamics for weeks now. Well done. I’ve been coaching kids on the offensive side of the football for 18 years. I don’t know everything. However, I do know talent. Alex is a talent. Smart, young, fast, reasonably strong armed, very accurate (when his his shoulder is attached properly, that is)and when or if things can get cleaned up in Niner land, I believe he will be one hell of a Leader. This is a kid with a huge upside, playing for a coach that has a funny way about him when it comes to motivating his players. I’m having a hard time buying-in. I have been very supportive of Nolan up to the point that he started throwing Alex under the bus. I really hope that they can work this thing out. If we loose Smith, we will regret it in the very near future. Thanks for your great piece.

Comment by Coach Dan

Soeren, I present the following from the 49ers’ Official Site:

RE: You said last week’s game against the Rams was the best quarterbacking job you have seen since you’ve been here for. Was this week’s game against the Cardinals the best game so far?
“He (Trent Dilfer) did better than he did last week. I think everyone would agree in watching that game. He had an outstanding game. Since he’s been playing, he seems to get better and better each week.

http://www.sf49ers.com/pressbox/news_detail.php?PRKey=3742

But thanks for keeping me honest.

Comment by indianajim

…and it’s Trent Dilfer, people.

Dilfer had a 92 rating when he played in six games, had 7 TD’s and 4 INT’s, and just over 1,000 yards. Really impressive numbers.

Comment by indianajim




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