After losing his job to Colin Kaepernick as he sat out with a concussion, Alex Smith had to see the writing on the wall. As Kaepernick led the 49ers all the way to the Super Bowl with his exciting and innovative style of play, it was all but set in stone that Smith would be moved in the off-season.
There was some belief that San Fransisco would just release Smith at some point, but instead the organization got a major return for a back-up that no longer fit in with their offensive identity. According to Jay Glazer of Fox Sports, the Kansas City Chiefs have agreed to send their second round pick in this year’s draft and a conditional mid-round pick in the 2014 draft to the 49ers in exchange for Smith. The trade cannot be official until March 12, but the two sides have agreed to the deal.
Seeing a former first overall pick that have been perceived as a bust for the majority of his career be replaced by a more productive young back-up is not necessarily surprising, but the irony is that Smith was actually starting to develop into an NFL caliber quarterback under Harbaugh. Smith had a carousel of coaches come in and out of the lockerroom over his first few seasons as a pro, making it tough on him to ever get comfortable in a 49er uniform. Once Harbaugh arrived, Smith had a noticeable uptick in production and, perhaps more importantly, confidence. That game-winning touchdown run in the playoffs against the 49ers seemed like a turning point in Smith’s career, and he came out this season as one of the most effective quarterbacks in the league.
At his best, which was this season, Smith was still a gamemanager type, but he was managing the game so well that you could hardly argue with him being your starting quarterback. Smith never forced anything, understood his realm of possibility and never took the 49ers out of games. The problem was that Smith was still not much of a difference maker, which made it hard for the 49ers to win games that they didn’t get the immediate upperhand in. While Kaepernick was more prone than Smith to put you in a 14-0 hole, you could put up with that because you knew Kaepernick had enough big play ability to get your team back in the game. Smith could play well and still lose because if San Fransisco’s defense wasn’t tremendous, Smith wouldn’t be able to win an offensive battle.
I think Smith is still capable of being a solid starting QB in the NFL, though. Smith completed 70.2% of his passes in 10 starts in 2012, posting the seventh highest QBR in the league at 70.1. According to Football Outsiders’ advanced numbers, Smith ranked 10th in DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average), which is a stat that measures a players impact on a per play basis, last season at 14.9%. Kaepernick was the third most valuable player on a per play basis in the league, which is understandable given how many big gains he had, but Smith ranking 10th on the list is impressive, particularly when his DVOA the two seasons prior to Harbaugh’s arrival was in the negative.
Now Smith is being forced to deal with another coaching change and another playbook. The good news for him is that he is going to yet another coach that is praised for his ability to get the best out of quarterbacks: Andy Reid. I’m happy that Smith will be going to a situation that should suit him well. Reid gets the most out of his quarterbacks and it has become apparent over the past couple of seasons that Smith does have some talent, even if he won’t ever be an elite quarterback. Reid has also shown that he has an eye for offensive talent, and with Jamal Charles and Dwyane Bowe already in tow, I think the former Eagles coach has a shot to build a solid offensive system around Smith.
And finally, Smith’s arrival in Kansas City will reportedly cue the end of Matt Cassel’s tenure with the Chiefs, as the team reportedly plans to release him. Cassel had a huge season in 2008 when filling in for Tom Brady which earned him the franchise tag from the Patriots. New England then turned and flipped him (and linebacker Mike Vrabel) to Kansas City for, coincidentally, the 34th overall pick in the draft. Though his first and last seasons with the Chiefs were awful, his 2010 campaign was solid, as he ranked 14th in the league in DYAR and 16th in DVOA. Cassel was in a very poor situation for a quarterback last season and I think he can still produce if the right teams signs him. Although, with the Patriots shopping Ryan Mallet, wouldn’t it be something to see Cassel return to be Tom Brady’s back-up again?