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How Not to Succeed in Business Even Though You Were Really Trying: The Alex Smith Story

Jan 30, 2013, 6:45 PM EDT

alexsmith2 Getty Images

Let’s say that you’ve been saving your money every day since you were 13 years old so that you could buy a car when you turned 16. You had the cash stored in a large cigar box beneath your bed — money from your paper route; wadded singles from mowing countless lawns; loose change begged from relatives … not just yours — everybody’s relatives.

And finally the big day is almost here, and you’ve got about three grand saved up — enough for a decent used car, once your parents match it (you’ve not only videotaped that promise, but posted it on YouTube). But about two months before your birthday, your parents call you in to the living room for a talk.

DAD: “We know you’ve done all the right things and saved your money and worked really hard, and this family appreciates all of your efforts.”

MOM: “You were the big reason our Christmas card photo was so successful this year.”

DAD: “Yes, you’ve been a terrific son. But, well, your brother is 18, and he doesn’t have a car. And he’s a much better driver than you, and …”

MOM: “What your father is trying to say is, your brother is getting the car.”

DAD: “It’s for the good of the family — we know you’ll understand. (Takes cigar box from son, opens it, withdraws a five-dollar bill). “Here. Buy yourself something nice.”

Your reaction might be similar to that of Manti Te’o’s when he discovered his girlfriend wasn’t real, or perhaps this cat.

Or maybe you’d feel just like Alex Smith.

If Smith’s life were a movie poster, the copy would look something like this: The record-setting quarterback who got injured. The injured quarterback who became a backup. The backup who reached the Super Bowl. From Billboard to Clipboard: The Alex Smith Story.

Alex Smith did all the interviews at Super Bowl Media Day and said all the right things, because Alex Smith is a good soldier. But he’s a lonely soldier — standing on the sideline holding a (football/teddy bear: pick one) as Colin Kaepernick calls signals and sprints about the field in the playoffs.

Ah, Kaepernick. How big is he? People at a Modesto, CA, bakery are working around the clock at this very hour making dozens of Kaepernick arm cakes to meet the high demand. And people throughout the nation are Kaepernicking (that’s kissing one’s bicep), and getting Kaepernick tattoos, as the 49ers prepare to meet the Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII. But shouldn’t this be Smith’s time? Shouldn’t fans be baking Smith body parts? Shouldn’t everyone be Smithing? I’m not even sure what that would be, and I guess we’ll never know.

Our story so far: Smith led the 49ers to the NFC Championship Game last season, and through no fault of his, the Niners lost to the Giants. He then had them on a 7-2 roll this season, including a win in the opener with the Packers. His 18-of-19 passing performance against the Cardinals was one completion short of the NFL single-game completion percentage record, and he was leading the league in overall season percentage. He also set a team record for most passes without an interception.

But in San Francisco, that kind of resume gets you fired.

Smith suffered a concussion against the Rams, and you know what happened after that. Bobcat Goldthwait has a line that sums it up perfectly:

“I lost my job the other day. Well, I didn’t lose it exactly, I know where it is. It’s just that when I go in they have someone else doing it.”

Smith signed a three-year, $24 million contract on March 20. If he’s still on the roster on April 1, he’d get his full 2013 base salary of $7.5 million. That seems way high for a backup these days.

So it’s hard to know exactly what Alex Smith is feeling right now, because this kind of move is unprecedented. Previously in the NFL, and in all of pro sports, really, you were only replaced if you either didn’t play well, or were too hurt to continue. Of course there’s always the occasional violation of the morals clause in your contract, but we won’t go into that because it doesn’t apply.

But Smith recovered from his concussion, dutifully got a doctor’s note, and returned to the field to play quarterback — only to find out that someone else was doing it. Kaepernick was named the starter and Smith was pistol-optioned out the door. Smith has said he doesn’t care for the situation (most telling comment: “This sucks.”). But that’s not exactly a tantrum. Terrell Owens doesn’t even get out of bed in the morning for a complaint as benign as that.

Not only have his complaints been weak and uninspired, but Smith has actually helped Kaepernick get up to speed in the NFL. Jim Harbaugh said that Smith actually has been coaching Kaepernick more than he has.

As for reports that Smith wants to be released by the 49ers, he has “no idea where that came from.” (see video above).  He’s saying all the right things, but is that how he really feels? It can’t be. So it’s up to me to figure out what’s really going on in his mind right now. I think there are two possibilities:

1. He’s going to kill all his enemies with kindness. This is the passive-aggressive approach that is a favorite with many: I’ll make you feel so guilty that you’ll hurl yourself out a ninth-floor window when you realize what you’ve done to me. Most of us can relate, after all. Think of all the times you’ve been unfairly passed over; the times you’ve done exemplary work for little or no reward; the times you’ve been overlooked, mocked and abused. They didn’t give you a chance! And when they did, you shined — until you were pushed aside for someone younger and cheaper. And the really pretty girl went out with that other guy because he had all the money.

Well, Alex Smith wants to be your patron saint. He has suffered the slings and arrows of seven different offensive coordinators over seven seasons. You didn’t get that promotion at work, even though you were the most qualified? Alex feels you pain. He will suffer for you.

2. He’s secretly plotting to take over the world. He hides his true emotions, and he hides them well. By this time next year he’ll be the starting quarterback of the Cleveland Browns … or better yet, the Jets. And he’ll be in the Super Bowl, playing the (spins wheel) Packers, and the final score is Jets 70, Packers 3, and Mike McCarthy will say “I should have traded Rodgers for you, Alex! I’ve been a fool!”

Or maybe Smith will stick around — take a serious pay cut and remain the backup. Until the day, that is, that Kaepernick is injured in a suspicious therapy tub mishap in the team training room. Why was Kaepernick there at that particular time, and why was the tub’s temperature gauge turned to “explode”? The answers are shrouded in mystery.

But one thing is clear: Alex Smith is once again the starter for your San Francisco 49ers.

Perhaps it won’t be a hot tub explosion, but life is rough in the NFL, and Kaepernick is bound to get hurt sometime. Maybe even this Sunday. And when that happens, Alex Smith — old reliable, the Patron Saint of the Overlooked — will be ready to go in and save the day.

Then you’ll all be sorry, and you’ll want to apologize to Alex. But you’ll have to wait your turn, because someone else is doing it.

  1. skids003 - Jan 31, 2013 at 7:47 AM

    That little story sounds like the Liberal way.

  2. jodeman - Jan 31, 2013 at 11:28 AM

    I love this article. The example about the car was AWESOME!. That being said, I hope Alex decides to get traded or leave and the Cowboys pick him up. I would love to see him go to the ‘Boys and finally have a reliable, consistent quarterback! Ahh, life would be great then! (*wakes from lovely dream*)

  3. jprcox - Jan 31, 2013 at 11:31 AM

    I would agree if these guys were out there playing for peanuts. This is a business – these guys would be off to another team if the price was right. We as fans hope there would be some loyalty, but that is an illusion.

    • smeeefy - Feb 2, 2013 at 3:08 PM

      Exactly, it’s a business. Ask any professional athlete — they know how the system works. IN EVERY PROFESSIONAL SPORT, you can get injured at any moment (through no fault of your own) and your career could be over or could change drastically in an instant. It is what it is. Furthermore, sports is a field where you can put in all of your blood, sweat and tears and still not succeed. There is no sense in looking for “fairness” as this article seems be asking us to do.

      We are from San Francisco, but have lived in New Orleans for 18 years now, so we are both 49er and Saints fans. While Alex Smith is a fine quarterback, he is missing a key ingredient that Kaepernick has – charisma. Kaepernick and Smith are both talented, but Kaepernick is wild and unconventional and has fans ACROSS THE COUNTRY who want to see him pull off those crazy plays. I guarantee that if Alex Smith was the Superbowl Quarterback, there would be no market for Arm Cakes. Kaepernick make the 49ers WAAAAY more exciting than Smith ever did. And that is what sells, tickets, merchandise, cakes, etc.

      We have also witnessed a huge change in News Orleans because of our Quarterback, Drew Brees. In the last 5 years, we have probably sold more Saints merchandise and more game tickets EACH year than in the previous 30 years combined. Brees is talented, yes, but he also has an amazing personality that has brought fans out from all corners of the country. The man is probably the most loved person ever to set foot in New Orleans. I even told my husband during the delay in negotiating a new contract for Brees, that if the Saints screwed it up and let him go, that I would consider moving!

      Anyway, those talented AND charismatic quarterbacks are not all that common — any team would be stupid NOT to milk it for all it’s worth when they find a special one.

  4. shorttracknews - Jan 31, 2013 at 11:34 AM

    I don’t understand why people are freaking about Smith’s contract, at least for next year. Kaepernick signed a 4 year deal for 5.2 million in 2011 and the contract can’t be renegotiated for the upcoming 2013 season per the NFL rules. So what’s he making in 2013? Maybe 1.5 million? Add in Smith’s 8 million and you are at less then 10 million for your starting QB and backup. Yes it’s odd to have the backup making so much more but not a bad insurance policy. It’s the same thing the Seahawks did with Matt Flynn after Wilson took over for starting QB. Look around the NFL and add up the contracts of the #1 and #2 QB’s in the league and I’m the 49’ers are about average. Sure it’s crazy to keep Smith at that price for a backup, especially if he doesn’t wanna be there. It’s not crazy though to think it might not happen or he would have to reduce salary to stay.

    • jimbo75025 - Jan 31, 2013 at 6:57 PM

      Actually 10 million is on the low side. Pretty much all of the playoff teams with exception of SF and the three with rookie starters are paying their starting QB’s only over 10 million.

  5. ghirdorah - Jan 31, 2013 at 11:39 AM

    I’d be out the door faster than you could say WTF….

  6. jxegh - Jan 31, 2013 at 11:42 AM

    I think Alex has done pretty good in business – the SF 49ers have paid him 70 million dollars. Has a beatiful wife and a new baby son. You want me to feel sorry for him?

  7. rmfields - Jan 31, 2013 at 11:44 AM

    Alex Smith is a standup guy.

    After having to follow in the footsteps of guys like Montana, Young, and even Jeff Garcia, expectations were certainly high for this former number one overall pick.

    Although his first few seasons were forgettable, it’s hard to deny that Smith was developing into a solid QB – one who avoided costly mistakes, had an accurate throwing arm, and maintained an above-average game sense.

    I do disagree with you in one regard, which is how you stated Smith “led” the 49ers to the NFC Championship game last year. Sure, he wasn’t considered a liability to the team in 2011, but let’s be honest – the 49ers DEFENSE had more to do with their success last year than anything else.

    This year is different. The 49ers defense is still a top-5 unit, but their offense got a jolt with the dual threat Kaepernick under center.

    But that’s not to say Alex Smith is a bad quarterback. In fact, I honestly believe Smith could start for about a dozen NFL teams next year and be an improvement over their current QB situation.

    Alex Smith knows this. And again, that’s why I think he’s one of the classiest guys in the league. He was supplanted through no fault of his own. He sustained a concussion, was out a few games, then was replaced from there on. He wasn’t benched due to a bad performance. It was simply because a young kid came in and reinvigorated the offense – something San Fran has not seen in almost a decade.

    But hearing that Smith is mentoring Kaepernick really strikes a chord. It reminds me a little of how an aging Kurt Warner mentored a young Matt Leinhart and Eli Manning, only to regain his form and lead Arizona to a Super Bowl in the twilight of his career.

    The difference of course, is that Alex Smith still has a lot of years left in the league. You can argue that he has yet to reach his prime.

    Bottom line, Alex Smith has shown maturity and leadership, whether he’s on the field or on the sideline. Many teams out there would love to have him. With the right tools, he could be one of the most efficient pocket passers of his generation.

    I hope he gets a chance next year to show the league that he has what it takes to hold a starting QBs job… and keep it.

  8. jdillydawg - Jan 31, 2013 at 12:27 PM

    I think Smith is playing this brilliantly. The one thing missing in your car analogy is that if he can hold out ’til Christmas (in this case, stay on the roster til April), his parents will give him a Mercedes, no money down.

    Smith has a deal on the table for $7.5 million. Sweet salary for a backup and no risk of injury. That said, the more he helps the 9ers win, the more his stock is rising with other teams. Imagine Smith in New York. The Jets wouldn’t know what to do with all that serenity.

    I think the guy sees a much bigger picture here. One where he has a decent NFL career, makes a boatload of money, lives a good life, and in the end, has no regrets. Bitching and moaning will only make him look bad and he seems way to smart to burn bridges by acting like an idiot. Wherever he lands, he’ll do well. And I’ll be rooting for him. How can you not?

  9. nonee1291 - Jan 31, 2013 at 2:13 PM

    As a lifetime 49er fan, I must say that I respect Smith but I’ve never thought of him as an elite quarterback or a quarterback that would win us another ring. Sure, his stats are great. He is an awesome guy but let’s be honest, when you watch him play, he lacks something – maybe its intuition, maybe he just isn’t as athletic as others (Colin K for one)… the fact that he has been with us for 7ish years under numerous coaches doesn’t help the poor guy but at the same time, he hasn’t shown leadership and adaptability.

    Yes, it sucks he got the boot but I think he’s overrated. Everyone keeps talking about his play last year and his stats last and this year. But what about all those years prior?! He threw the ball away, he was horrible. Moreover, in the NFC championship game last year when we lost, that was really his only good game where he actually threw decent passes.

    I know I’m going against the Niner Faithful code of conduct by putting Smith down, but I gotta write it like I see it.

  10. crappygovernment - Feb 1, 2013 at 9:23 AM

    Alex Smith has been a mediocre QB for several years. He personally held that talented SF roster back. Tebow is a class act for taking his blacklisting with dignity!

  11. jimranes - Feb 2, 2013 at 8:00 AM

    Alex Smith definitely is not a mediocre QB and was injured when he was replaced. He will most certainly leave the 49ers after the Super Bowl. There are other teams that could use a high functioning QB.

  12. witchrunner - Feb 2, 2013 at 7:40 PM

    I’ve got to admit, other than having to fill some space with words, what is the problem with what the 49er’s have done. The kid analogy is totally irrelevant. Your kid is your kid for life. The management of the 49er’s are trying to win a Super Bowl. Actually, I didn’t think it was that difficult a decision. Smith was having the best year of his career, but hadn’t shown the sustained brilliance that every organization wants to see. They made the decision that for this year, and the future, the younger Kaepernick was the way to go. It’s very understandable, especially considering the fact that the guy went down with a concussion. The chances of them recurring are fairly high.

    As I’ve said about the Bledsoe-Brady situation, Bledsoe was good, but never took them all the way. Brady was younger and showed promise. Should Bledsoe have been put back in the starting roll after he recovered from his injury, just because he put in the time, as this author seems to think? Of course not. As with all sports, you go with the younger promising one over the older, reliable, but never quite able to close the deal one. So, you let Smith go and stick with Kaepernick, unless you can seriously get Smith to want to stick around under the current circumstances.