By Kerry J. Byrne
President Alex Smith Fan Club
Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith will soon head to the Kansas City Chiefs, and with the move ends the saga of the most bizarre and statistically inexplicable benching in the history of the NFL.
Smith was in the midst of one of the most spectacular streaks of passing efficiency in the history of football. Then he suffered a concussion in a Week 10 game against the St. Louis Rams. He was cleared to play just a couple weeks later, yet never saw the field again.
It was a decision that quite possibly cost the 49ers a Super Bowl championship.
Some quarterbacks get benched for poor play. Others get benched to shake up a struggling team.
Smith got benched because coach Jim Harbaugh was enamored by a shiny object.
Smith led a legit Super Bowl contender and was playing spectacularly well. Then, poof! He was kicked to the curb with all the respect accorded a $10 Harlem street walker so that Harbaugh could play with his new toy.
Smith was replaced by young quarterback Colin Kaepernick: a sexy, eye-catching, multi-talented threat – but also an inferior quarterback.
Smith was the best quarterback who ever got benched. No quarterback in history has been relegated to second string after playing so incredibly well as Smith had over the past two seasons.
Quite frankly, at the time he was benched, Smith was one of the best quarterbacks in football. Period. His numbers were spectacular midway through the 2012 season:
- 153 of 218, 70.2%, 1,737 yards, 8.0 YPA, 13 TD, 5 INT, 104.1 rating
Only 21 quarterbacks have posted a passer rating of 104.0 or better (and they did it a combined 31 times); 15 of those 21 quarterbacks ended up in the Hall of Fame (or will someday soon).
Smith ended up on the sideline holding a clipboard.
Statistically speaking, Harbaugh benched the equivalent of Tom Brady. In fact, for a little perspective, when Smith was benched he actually boasted a higher completion percentage, higher average per attempt and higher passer rating than Brady and was better than every quarterback in football in at least one of those major measures of passing success.
Even more impressive: Smith was getting better seemingly week by week. He was absolutely on at the time he was benched.
Here’s how he performed in his final complete game, in Week 8 against the Arizona Cardinals:
- 18 of 19, 94.7%, 232 yards, 12.2 YPA, 3 TD, 0 INT, 157.1 rating
Smith that day, in his final full game, merely set the all-time NFL record for single-game completion percentage (min. 15 attempts). That effort, by the way, came against the best pass defense in football: the Cardinals finished the year No. 1 in Defensive Passer Rating.
Early in the year, that Arizona defense made Brady misfire (28 of 46); a week after getting torched by Smith, that Arizona defense limited Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers to just 14 of 30 passes, one of the most inaccurate days of his career.
Yet that defense, the best pass defense in football, was helpless to stop Alex Smith.
The 49ers quarterback picked up right where he left off in his next game against the Rams. He completed 7 of 8 with 1 TD and 0 INT before suffering the concussion. This was the same Rams defense that surrendered just 16 TD passes all year, among the fewest in the NFL.
So, in Smith’s final two starts, against two of the NFL’s better pass defenses, his performances looked like this:
- 25 of 27, 92.6%, 304 yards, 11.3 YPA, 4 TD, 0 INT, 153.2 rating
Those numbers are actually unbelievable. Nobody completes 93 percent of their passes with 11.3 YPA, 4 TD and 0 INT over the course of two NFL games. In fact, it’s never happened.
It was quite literally one of the most impressive six quarters of football in NFL history. And yet for all that effort Smith was awkwardly booted like a club-footed Tom Dempsey field goal.
Somewhere along the way Harbaugh and the pigskin public fell in love with the shiny object Colin Kaepernick.
When Kaepernick was good he was downright spectacular, most notably in his first start against the Bears, in his 4 TD effort against the Patriots and with his 181 rushing yards in the divisional round against the Packers.
But in between the shiny moments were moments of profound ordinariness.
We saw those moments of great mediocrity in Super Bowl XLVII. Kaepernick started slowly, even nervously, in that game, leading the 49ers to just two first-half field goals as the Ravens took a 21-6 lead into intermission.
He ended slowly, even nervously, too. He failed to connect on three stat passes into the end zone from the 5 yard line with the game hanging in the balance. One of those plays was quite controversial: it appeared that Michael Crabtree was interfered with one of those attempts.
Regardless, Kaepernick failed to come through in the big moment, and all three times targeted the same receiver – a habit you often see out of a nervous young quarterback reaching out for his binky.
Put another way, Jim Harbaugh’s big gamble failed. There's no other way to describe it.
And it failed with one of the best quarterbacks in the game over the past two years sitting on the bench. Smith in 2012 was the architect of what was shaping up as one of the great and most extraordinarily efficient passing seasons in history.
But all that production and efficiency was left to rot on the sidelines, the victim of Harbaugh's short attention span and fascination with his shiny object quarterback.
Kaepernick will thrive next year in San Francisco. After all, Harbaugh, despite the hubris that cost him in 2012, is the best QB coach in football today. The great productivity he got out of both Smith and Kaepernick is proof of his coaching skills.
Smith, meanwhile, will likely struggle in Kansas City, leading a struggling franchise and forced to learn in his ninth season under a new coach, in this case Andy Reid.
But one can only wonder what might have happened in 2012 had Harbaugh not made Smith the best quarterback who ever got benched.