Alex Smith has had to endure a ton of hardships in his 7 year NFL career. Some of these were beyond his control. Others were brought on by crappy quarterback play. But one thing that has cast a shadow on his entire time in San Francisco is the past. The 49ers went on a unprecedented (as of yet) run of phenomenal quarterback play from 1981 to 1998. In that time 2 hall of fame quarterbacks wore the scarlet and gold. The franchise won 5 super bowls. From 1989 to 1994 Joe Montana and Steve Young amassed 4 NFL MVP’s. This 17 year run of greatness was never before seen in the NFL and might never be seen again. This set the bar impossibly high for Alex, before he had even set foot on Candlestick’s hallowed turf. Playing quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers could be one of the most difficult assignments in all of sports.
49er fans expectations at the QB position are through the roof. For some perspective on how hard the road for Smith would become, we need to start with the first handover of the throne, which would go less than smoothly. Steve Young’s first year as the full time starter was 1991 and he was subbing for Montana who had been severely injured by Leonard Marshall in the previous years NFC championship game. Young led the league in passer rating and led the team to a 10-6 record. This wasn’t good enough for the playoffs and not nearly good enough for Niners fans who were fresh off seeing Joe lead the team to 4 titles. However, when Joe still hadn’t recovered by the start of the 1992 season, the Niners were “forced” into going with Young. So all Steve did that year was win the MVP and lead the team to a 14-2 record. He was the first QB to ever record a triple digit QB rating in consecutive years. In the NFC championship game Steve threw for 313 yards and 2 TD’s, but unfortunately could not play defense and the Niners lost to the hated Cowboys. The MVP? The 14-2 record? Not good enough. The fans clamored for Joe to return as the starter. A rift developed on the team as some wanted Young to start and others favored Montana. At his request, Joe was traded to the Chiefs and Young was now firmly entrenched as the starter. In 1993 Young set a franchise record for passing yards in a season, led the NFL in TD passes and once again led the team to the NFC championship game vs the despised Cowboys. Once again the Young led Niners lost and once again fans cried out for Young’s head. Joe was still the king of the City and no one could ever replace him. 1994 came and Young was finally, mercifully let into the fans collective hearts. The fact that the front office decided to field an actual defense helped matters tremendously. Young once again won MVP, broke Montana’s passer rating record, finally beat the loathsome Cowboys and won his first Super Bowl. Then, and only then, did Niners fans decide that Young was worthy of being the starting QB of the San Francisco 49ers.
In 1999 Young suffered a career ending injury thanks to Lawrence Phillips complete indifference towards blocking. Young’s replacement was Jeff Garcia, who was almost immediately unpopular among Niners fans. In his first full season as a starter, Garcia broke Young’s franchise record for passing yards, threw 31 TD’s along with only 10 INT’s and was named to the Pro Bowl. Garcia went on to make the pro bowl again the following 2 years while leading the team to 2 straight playoff appearances, including the second greatest comeback in NFL playoff history. However, as you might imagine, no one particularly cared for Jeff despite him being a pretty excellent QB during his time in San Francisco and he was gone after 2003. Just to recap, 4 years as starter, 3 pro bowls, 2 playoff appearances and the franchise single season passing yards record. In most NFL cities, this would make you a tremendously popular player. In San Francisco, he couldn’t have been gone fast enough.
This is the legacy that Alex Smith inherited. From 1981 up until Smith was drafted in 2005, a 49er QB represented the NFC in the pro bowl 18 times in 25 years. Not only did insane expectations come with playing quarterback for the 49ers, but there were the expectations that come along with being the number 1 overall pick in the draft. More than one generation of Niner fans had grown up watching their QB’s play on a level somewhere between pro bowl and hall of fame. We all know the obstacles that Smith has had to overcome. The 2 defensive head coaches that he began his career with. The parade of offensive coordinators and different systems he played in. Number 1 wide receivers that included 36 year old Isaac Bruce, Arnaz Battle and Antonio Bryant. 2 shoulder surgeries. Alex has surely played bad at times during his stay in San Francisco, but these factors that were beyond his control certainly didn’t help. Neither did the crushing weight of playing the Quarterback position in San Francisco. Now that Smith has been put into the right situation under Jim Harbaugh, his turnaround has already begun. Smith had an outstanding 2011 season that included him staking his own place in 49er playoff lore, leading the incredible comeback win over the Saints. It’s time for Alex to stand on the shoulders of the giants who have played QB here in San Francisco and continue to crave his own name into the 49ers record books.