49ers news: Alex Smith retires, leaves a complex legacy

Washington quarterback Alex Smith (11) Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports
Washington quarterback Alex Smith (11) Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports /

Former 49ers quarterback Alex Smith just retired, and his legacy is one the Niners can look back at and take lessons from moving forward.

One of the NFL’s more recent and inspiring storylines is coming full circle, as veteran quarterback Alex Smith is calling it a career.

The No. 1 overall pick from the 2005 NFL Draft, who joined the San Francisco 49ers that year out of Utah, will be known for a lot of things. Especially his heroic efforts to come back from a devastating leg injury with the Washington Football Team in 2018 that nearly took his life, let alone just his leg, to then again take the field in 2020 once his recovery was complete.

Those final games last year, including one against his former Niners team, were Smith’s swan song. And the 36-year-old veteran elected to retire as announced on his Instagram this week:

In total, Smith finishes his 16-year career with a 62.6 completion percentage, 35,650 passing yards, 199 touchdowns against 109 interceptions with a 86.9 passer rating. While his success with San Francisco came late, he’d eventually help turn around the 49ers in the early 2010s while then going on to help both the Kansas City Chiefs and Washington, making it to three Pro Bowls along the way.

For the Niners, however, Smith will leave a complex legacy and can pass along a lesson to both San Francisco and the rest of the league.

Alex Smith’s legacy to 49ers, rest of the NFL

Let’s go back to the spring of 2005 when the 49ers held the No. 1 overall pick in that year’s NFL Draft. The Niners were going to choose between Smith and Cal quarterback Aaron Rodgers under then first-year head coach Mike Nolan.

We know the story: Nolan chose Smith over Rodgers, and the rest has become well-discussed history. Rodgers, the Super Bowl-winning future Hall of Famer who has been a perennial Pro Bowler and one of the top three quarterbacks of his era.

Smith, meanwhile, never amounted to anything close despite his successes on the field.

Instead, Smith dealt with a myriad of challenges Rodgers never had to endure. Yearly changes of offensive coordinators in San Francisco, implementing different systems and schemes. Smith also had no shortages of clashes with Nolan, who felt Smith was nursing a serious shoulder injury — a storyline broken down by The Athletic’s Matt Barrows when he appeared on the Niner Noise podcast.

Bouncing in and out of the lineup, Smith’s first six years in the league were nothing short of shaky, and it was understandable why he was being labeled as a draft bust.

But that’s where the lesson applies.

Was Smith perfect during his time with the 49ers? No. Far from it. But it’s important to acknowledge any NFL draftee will also be a product of the team and surroundings by which he’s drafted. It was easy to blame the player, yes. Yet it’s also important to at least acknowledge coaches like Nolan and a dysfunctional Niners squad did Smith few favors.

So, for the “we should have drafted Rodgers” crowd, he might have had better success with San Francisco than Smith, but even Rodgers would have had a tough time becoming the player he turned into had a treading-water 49ers team drafted him instead of Smith.

Simply put, the Niners during the latter half of that decade were a mess. Smith’s early struggles weren’t solely because of this, but they were certainly influenced by it.

Fortunately, Smith turned things around in 2011. But by the beginning of 2013, he was gone after San Francisco shifted gears to quarterback Colin Kaepernick. And then Smith would be booted by the Chiefs, thanks to their addition of quarterback Patrick Mahomes in 2017 and then starting him a year later.

Now entering the 2021 NFL Draft, the No. 3-drafting 49ers are picking another quarterback awfully high up in the order. And unlike 2005, the context of whichever prospect the Niners select will enter will be much better than the one Smith endured back in 2005.

That’s the lesson: create as good a situation for a rookie quarterback to develop and mature.

San Francisco didn’t do that for Smith, yet he was still able to resurrect himself and flourish. And, hopefully, the 49ers’ newest rookie quarterback won’t have to challenge himself with those same early struggles Smith dealt with in his own lengthy career.

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