Friday, October 14, 2011

Alex Smith Deserves Better Than Lazy Narrative; Week 6 Picks

Here's the thing: It was stupid, pointless and self-serving for Brett Favre to suggest on the radio, as he did a couple weeks ago, that his successor Aaron Rodgers fell into a perfect situation with a loaded roster. Favre came off petty, jealous and desperate for attention. He never should've said it or fallen for his interviewer's trap. Here's what Favre should've said about Rodgers:

"He's amazing, he's incredibly talented, I saw first-hand how hard he works at it and how dedicated he is and Packers fans will enjoy watching him play for a long, long time."

That would've been the truth.

However, what Favre said was also the truth, and that's largely been ignored because he said it.

It's been fashionable for some time to view the 49ers decision to draft Alex Smith with the first overall pick of the 2005 instead of Rodgers as some epic blunder, and to view the two players through the same historical prism that we use for Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf or Michael Jordan and Sam Bowie. Smith has by-and-large been thought of as one of the all-time draft busts.

It's a label that was never fair to Smith and one that never fit. There was no logical reason for him to play as poorly as he did. He was smart, athletic, an extremely hard worker and very coachable. He handled himself well in the locker room and with the media, unlike the petulant Leaf. He was everything an organization would want in its quarterback six days a week and every off-season. During game days though, it just didn't work.

While many bay area football fans wanted the team to draft Rodgers because he was a local kid who played at Cal, many talent evaluators preferred the more athletic Smith. The two were neck-and-neck in many attributes, but ultimately Mike Nolan (who had current Packers coach Mike McCarthy on his staff) chose the mild-mannered Smith because he was less likely to challenge him and defy his instructions. Rodgers was more arrogant and cocky, the way most star athletes are.

That Rodgers is a better player than Smith is not up for debate. What is interesting though is the Shakespearean tragedy of their career arcs. Whereas Rodgers had every advantage possible, Smith has had nothing but obstacles.

Rodgers came from a pro-style offense at Cal and was more ready to play right away. Still he got to sit for three seasons and learn behind Favre, to really hone his craft mentally before he ever had to step on the field. Smith played in a gimmick offense at Utah under Urban Meyer and couldn't have been less prepared for the pro game. He was the guy who should've grown intimate with the bench for a couple of years. Instead he was thrown on the field virtually straight away and asked to lead what was basically an expansion team in terms of its roster. It was no surprise given all that, that he threw 11 interceptions before connecting on his first touchdown pass.

Smith desperately needed good coaching, and stable, patient leadership. Instead he's had nothing but chaos. Time has robbed fans of their memories from 2006, the last season before this one where they weren't ashamed to admit that Smith was their team's quarterback. Under offensive coordinator Norv Turner he was improving practically at a geometric rate, and particularly looked good toward the end of the season. Unfortunately for him, Turner took the San Diego job and Smith was saddled with a parade of jokers at coordinator and the next four years. It was borderline criminal what Nolan did to him in 2007, first sticking him with Jim Hostler and then questioning Smith's manhood and ordering him to play with a separated shoulder. The injury robbed Smith of two seasons and nearly ended his career.

Rodgers on the other hand has played for McCarthy, who serves as his own offensive coordinator, his whole career. He hasn't had to crack open the playbook in years because nothing has changed. He's also gotten to throw to Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, Jordy Nelson, James Jones and Jermichael Finley for years whereas Smith's had to endure a revolving door of receivers, all of whom were less talented than their Green Bay counterparts.

Imagine if the roles were reversed and Rodgers had to make do with Nolan as his coach and no one around him. How often would they have butted heads and how quickly would've Nolan shipped him out of town while he still had the authority to do so? Don't forget, Nolan wasn't fired midway through the 2008 season for the way he ruined Smith. He was canned because he proved he couldn't win with Mike Martz and J.T. O'Sullivan either.

Contrary to popular opinion, Joe Montana and Bill Walsh weren't the best of pals and "Joe Cool" would often scream ten-letter unmentionables involving a synonym for a chicken and the function of a vacuum cleaner at his coach after Walsh offered him coaching points on the sidelines. And Walsh actually knew what he was talking about. Imagine how a guy like Montana would've reacted toward the inept Nolan or the clueless Mike Singletary, and it starts to sink in why it wouldn't have been the paradise you all daydream about with Aaron Rodgers in the red and gold. There's no way he would've saved the Nolan 49ers because they were beyond saving from him, from Montana, from anyone. You couldn't write a screenplay about the level of dysfunction at all levels the organization had without it sounding like some cliched cheesy sports movie fiction.

While we're in the realm of the Hollywood narrative, it's become accepted as chapter and verse that Smith, who's third in the NFL with a 104.1 passer rating and has led the 49ers to a 4-1 record, has somehow experienced a career transformation under Jim Harbaugh, the first credible offensive coach he's had since Turner. It's a popular theory, but it's also lazy and wrong. Smith, who showed flashes of potential in a series here or a quarter there in his two seasons since returning from injury, seemed to have finally turned the corner in the second half of the 2010 season, and stopped throwing the ball to the other guy.

Over his final six appearances he threw for eight touchdowns to one interception and in his last ten starts overall he's completed 159-of-263 passes (60.5%) for 1,986 yards, with 15 touchdowns and two interceptions. Has Smith improved under Harbaugh? Unquestionably. Was Smith, ridiculously underrated even before Harbaugh'd hire? Absolutely.

Because of injuries and benchings, Smith who started in the NFL three years before Rodgers did, is still the less-experienced player. He's made 55 starts to Rodgers' 57, counting playoffs. His football card says is in the midst of his seventh season, but really it's more like his fourth, and he's progressed the way you'd expect a fourth year starter to, slowly and steadily. He just needs what Rodgers has had -- good teammates, good coaching and stability with both.

So yes, it's true. Rodgers did fall into a good situation.

But you know what? So did Jim Harbaugh.

Week 6 Picks

Philadelphia at Washington (+2):
The Redskins are leading the NFC East at 3-1, are third in the league in both total and scoring defense, have had two weeks to rest and prepare coming off their bye, and have the motivation of being underdogs at home to a 1-4 team. So of course I like the Eagles, quite possibly the dumbest team in NFL history, to win. Eagles 27, Redskins 20

San Francisco at Detroit (-5):
I’d like the 49ers more if they had Morgan and Edwards, but they’re gonna be shorthanded at receiver. I also have questions about that offensive line on the road. The Lions have outscored their foes 109-23 in the second half this season. Lions 27, 49ers 17 **TWO STAR SPECIAL**

Indianapolis at Cincinnati (-7):
You gotta give the Colts credit -- they've turned this tanking thing into a science. Every week they manage to blow games late and it totally looks authentic and like they're trying to win. I really hope the Emmy people have been paying attention. The Bengals, meanwhile, have inexplicably fielded one of the best defenses in the league so far. Bengals 20, Colts 17

Carolina at Atlanta (-4):
So many people are expecting an upset here that it no longer seems like an upset. And here I was, feeling bold and original. Julio Jones will be out for the Falcons, which means they're right where they were when the playoffs started last season, with three losses and no ramshackle secondary. Good thing they'll have all those draft picks to shore up that area of need, right? Panthers 30, Falcons 27 **THREE STAR SPECIAL**

St. Louis at Green Bay (-15):
On paper this seems like an uneven match-up. Fortunately for the Rams, games aren't played on paper, they're played on the field, where on any given Sunday, anybody can beat anybody. Unfortunately for the Rams, the only Sunday they wouldn't be totally obliterated on the field by the Packers would be Oct. 30, when Green Bay will be on their bye week. Packers 37, Rams 13

Buffalo at New York Giants (-3):
The Bills like to give up yards by the bushel and collect turnovers. The Giants like to collect yards like it's going out of style and to give the ball away. These two should get along swimmingly. I wish I could buy stock in "Chris Berman will pick a 20-19 score for this game on his lame-ass Swami predictions." Bills 24, Giants 23.

Jacksonville at Pittsburgh (-13): Signs your market doesn't deserve a a pro team No. 731 -- When your beat reporters keep asking the opposing coach during a conference call about a playoff game four seasons ago. Mike Tomlin, who has led the Steelers to a Super Bowl win and a Super Bowl loss since losing a wild card game to the Jags, was rightly annoyed to have to field questions about that game. Why not just ask him if the Jaguars should've taken Warren Sapp instead of Tony Boselli in the 1995 draft while you're at it? Steelers 26, Jaguars 10

Cleveland at Oakland (-7):
Normally this would be a trap game, but the Raiders figure to still be inspired, for obvious reasons. The Browns figure to be slow, talentless, and largely spazzy at quarterback. Raiders 27, Browns 13 **FOUR STAR SPECIAL**

Houston at Baltimore (-8):
The Texans will be without their best players on either side of the ball in Andre Johnson and Mario Williams and may be missing Arian Foster as well. The Ravens are well rested and Joe Flacco has played well in the odd-numbered weeks, so that's good enough for me. Ravens 27, Texans 16 ** FIVE STAR SPECIAL **

Dallas at New England (-7):
Or as I call it, "The Meteor Bowl." Who I will be rooting for will largely depend on the results of the morning's Eagles-Redskins tilt, but either way I'm not sure how much of Cowboys-Pats will resonate with me since blood will be gushing out of my eye sockets. I was thinking what would be the best way to ruin the day for both fan bases and to make Skip Bayless' head explode, and I figured it out: Have Tom Brady and Tony Romo make out on the 50-yard-line after the game. Obviously, this would make me like both of them way more. Patriots 34, Cowboys 30

New Orleans at Tampa Bay (+5):
No LeGarrette Blount for the Bucs, who couldn't even sell out this game. They should just combine with the Jaguars and Dolphins to form one super Florida franchise that no one will care about. And by "super" I mean maybe a 10-6 record and a wild card birth. I look for Josh Freeman to bounce back and keep this close, but, ultimately, Drew Breeeeeeeeees. Saints 27, Buccaneers 24

Minnesota at Chicago (-3):
An intriguing match-up between one quarterback who gets slammed to the turf routinely and another who likes to drill footballs to the turf like he's Michael Vick, but with worms instead of dogs. An upset pick for the Vikes, who are "arrow up" in Harbaugh parlance. Vikings 20, Bears 16

Miami at New York Jets (-7):
Brandon Marshall promised that he would be so intense for this game that he'll get ejected by the second quarter, and he's just nuts enough where I believe him. I'm guessing he meant for it to sound inspiring to teammates, but instead he comes off looking a loon. The Jets, meanwhile, have all kinds of problems but would need an all-time stinker from Mark Sanchez to keep Miami in the game. Jets 23, Dolphins 10

Last week's W-L: 8-5
Season W-L: 51-26
Week 5 Vs. Spread: 5-7-1
Season Vs. Spread: 31-43-3
Week 5 +/- Points (All games count as one point unless specified): +6
Season +/- Points: -12

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