“Elite vs. Ideal”

A true draft anomaly: from bust to hero

I can’t necessarily pinpoint when, but somewhere along the way, we simply lost our way.

We lost our edge as sports fans. We compromised our principles and cashed out, succumbing to a barrage of mindless, useless and mostly scripted and contrived banter focused around two words: “elite” and “legacy.”

We lost our poise and focus and creativity.

In essence, we were brainwashed.

Well, some of us anyway.

Truthfully speaking, baseball’s steroids scandal forced us to evaluate, long-term, how some of the luminaries of the game would be remembered. Bonds and Clemens opened up the legacy dialogue, and that was more than acceptable. It fit. How would two titans of the game, both cheaters, be remembered? Legacy. Fair game.

The word was also quite popular during Phil Mickelson’s erratic yet riveting quest for his first major. How would a player with such undeniable skill and creativity around the green be viewed without a major on his mantle? I get it. I didn’t follow golf during Greg Norman’s reign, but I imagine the word was used in an effort to provide clarity and help quantify his peaks and valleys, especially at Augusta.

Same with Lebron for a few years, and to a lesser extent, before that, Kobe without Shaq.

In terms of the sweet science, before Mike Tyson completely lost his mind, enthusiasts of the ring established their own criteria developed over decades of watching championship tilts and hot prospects.

Long before sports radio cemented itself as a viable outlet, society has always turned other venues into their own, personal afternoon drive slot: bars, locker rooms and tailgates all fit the bill. It’s what men do. We did it as kids in the street and we do it at family BBQ’s as adults.

But what the hell is so hard about the word “elite?” Really, there is nothing nebulous about the term or what it represents.

e·lite or é·lite  (-lt-lt)

n. pl. elite or e·lites


a. A group or class of persons or a member of such a group or class, enjoying superior intellectual, social, or economic status: “In addition to notions of social equality there was much emphasis on the role of elites and of heroes within them” (Times Literary Supplement).

b. The best or most skilled members of a group: the football team’s elite.

Does that describe Alex Smith? Of course not.

When referencing the elites of any sport, their greatness should be undeniable; their talents rare and tantalizing; their production and accomplishments beyond question. To me, that is what the word “elite” has always represented.

But in this watered-down world of “every-kid-gets-a-trophy,” that list has been distorted. Scrubs gets paid like stars and stars are treated like Babe Ruth and Jim Brown. The actual superstars? The deserving ones are dissected like lab rats by Skip Bayless, their true greatness eventually diminished.

Which brings me to Alex Smith, and his remarkable journey from the QB grave yard: saved by Jim Harbaugh, and currently, one of the leaders on the NFL’s best team, the San Francisco 49ers.

Excluding the 2008 season, Alex Smith has led the 49ers to records of 2-5, 7-9, 2-5, 5-5, and 3-7 before last season’s 13-3 resurrection. I’m constantly reminded (now) by 49er fans that a QB should be judged ultimately by the scoreboard, not stats. After glancing at his career win totals, are you sure that’s how you want to begin your defense of Alex Smith?

I didn’t think so.

In 2005, the same year Smith was drafted # 1 overall our of Utah, Apple introduced the first IPod Shuffle. The IPod Shuffle! That’s a while ago, and while fans hate the fact the first 6 years of the Alex Smith Era were painful ones, it doesn’t change the fact that they actually occurred!

2005 NFL Draft

1. Alex Smith, 49ers

2. Ronnie Brown, Dolphins

3. Braylon Edwards, Browns

4. Cedric Benson, Bears

5. Cadillac Williams, Buccaneers

6. Pacman Jones, Titans

7. Troy Williamson, Vikings

8. Antrel Rolle, Cardinals

9. Carlos Rogers, Redskins

10. Mike Williams, Lions

Almost every name on that list is a bust, criminal, or retread, with the exception of Rolle and Rogers, and now Smith. Their careers have already been defined. In the very literal sense of the word, failures, at least on Sundays. And while Alex continues to rehabilitate his image, some numbers are undeniable. Last season, the 49ers ranked 31st in 3rd down conversions. A closer look at the breakdown paints an interesting picture:

1. Saints (56.7%)

2. Chargers

3. Packers

4. Steelers

5. Patriots


28. Bills

29. Cardinals

30. Broncos

31. 49ers (29.4%)

32. Rams

I don’t know about you, but if given the choice, I kind of like the Brees-Rivers-Rodgers-Roethliesberger-Brady aisle a whole lot better than the Fitzpatrick-Skelton/Kolb-Tebow-Smith-Bradford bin.

Last season, despite having an above average ground presence, the 49ers ranked 30th in red zone scoring percentage (TD’s only). Only one team in the NFL threw the ball less the entire season, and again, just looking at the numbers, Smith ranked 19th in total passing yards with 3,144. Pedestrian numbers, at best.

This season, Alex is off to a superb start, leading his team to a pair of high-profile wins (Packers, Lions) while completing 70.4% of his passes. He’s currently on pace for 32 TD’s, and has yet to throw a pick, which he hasn’t done, seemingly, in years. He has additional weapons at his disposal, and the offense is far more diverse and dangerous than it was a season ago. Barring injuries, the 49ers appear destined to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. Who’s better? The Giants? Philly? Dallas? Saints? Please.

The point of this, really, is not to knock Alex Smith, but rather, to more accurately identify what he is at this stage of his career. And after watching him in person all of last season and the first two weeks this year, here’s my scouting report:

Tough, mobile, cerebral and his accuracy in the short to intermediate routes is good. His arm strength is average to slightly above average. He senses pressure well in the pocket, and has silenced, for the most part, his once happy feet. He’s learned to take control at the line of scrimmage, and his teammates love him.

But does Alex Smith make his teammates better, or has he finally been insulated by a great coaching staff and placed in a system where the defense sets the tone and offense is asked, merely, to be competent?

You see, in a lot of ways, we’ve been debating the wrong thing. It’s not about whether or not Alex Smith is elite. Who cares. For the record, in my opinion, he’s not, and he never will be. Too much has transpired in what was, until last year, a disappointing career. But right now, in 2012, he’s good.

And right now, he’s the absolutely perfect QB for what just might be, a perfect team.

After all these years, Alex Smith finally fits.

But after years of watching Dan Marino, Jim Kelly and Tom Brady carve up the AFC East, my definition of elite appears to be very, very different than some out here in the Bay.

And I’m perfectly fine with that.

Leave a comment


  1. Brandon, I respect your opinion, but don’t say “we” lost our way just because you feel that Alex isn’t elite. Too often in sportstalk, we try to define what other people should think . . . the truth is, if you ask me now, Alex Smith is an elite QB in the NFL, certainly based on the “b” definition of what you posted. He’s simply one of the best QBs in the league right now, both in stats and by the eye test. Best of all time or even the past 5 years? No. But I’d take Alex into battle against any of the QBs in the league and like my chances that he will outplay them. It’s kind of like what going on with your radio station . . . you’ve only been in the market, and I consider you in the top tier of local sports radio hosts. Should I knock you down just cause you haven’t been doing it as long? Or am I right in saying that you’re indeed in the elite class? BTW, great show . . . keep up the good work!

  2. Josh

     /  09/18/2012

    Wait…people in the bay think Alex Smith is elite? Seriously? lol And don’t get too worked up NIner fans…I’ll be the first to admit that your squad looks like the best team in the league right now. Not arguing that. However Smith and “elite” should never be mentioned in the same sentence. Ever.

    Hope all is well BT, miss you over here in NY.

  3. BennyBlanco

     /  09/18/2012

    I love your show The Drive, the station overall and your East Coast style you bring to the Bay. But I think you’re kinda missing the whole point about Alex Smith and being elite. Urban Meyer said it the best back in the day… he said that until Alex 100% understands the offense… the minute details… he will not be effective. But that once he got it and grasped it completely that there is no one better. Does he have a canon like Rodgers, or can he run like Cam?!? No. But can he dismantle a defense at the line of scrimmage like he’s doing right now?!? Yes. Last year was the beginning and this year Alex has turned the corner. Peyton Manning always get’s praise for his play at the line of scrimmage and yet Alex is now doing the exact same thing. Name me one other QB playing as well mentally at the line of scrimmage as well is Alex Smith is right now? I don’t think you can. And when you have Roman saying that Alex is part of the scheme process and that he’s basically another coach you can’t help but realize what Urban said was spot on. Maiocco said out of his 11 missed throws that 8 of them were drops that should have been caught and one was a throw away due to the bad snap. My question for you BT then is what could Alex possibly be doing better at this point in his career? If he had Harbaugh and staff when he was drafted in 2005 I don’t think this would even be a discussion. Smith is going to win 2 rings with this team and I’m excited to see how it all plays out over the next 2-3 years.

  4. Jacob Sheffer

     /  09/18/2012

    I agree with you BT he isn’t elite, everyone is way to quick to hand out that title. At the same time due to his past people are way to quick to discredit his recent success and wins and say it is all because of his defense. Some of those “elite” qb’s had bad defenses, or made early mistakes with the ball that got their team in an early hole so they were forced to throw the ball a lot to come back. (we saw this with Eli this weekend) So just because alex is on a good team and isn’t forced to throw the ball 40+ times his game isn’t as good. I get it, alex had a horrible, HORRIBLE first six years in the NFL, he has a lot of work to do earn the respect. BT I hope you keep on doubting him, I have no doubt in my mind that he has the talent to become elite. Alex will continue to grow and prove people wrong, he isn’t going anywhere I have a feeling kaepernick will be riding the bench for awhile.

  5. thesportsgambit@gmail.com

     /  09/19/2012

    Tierney you proceed to define what elite is and Alex Smith fits in easily in both instances, he is superior intellect, in fact IQ or intelligence wise he’s smarter than any QB in the league, and probably one of the smartest football players in the league so he IS elite! But lets face it they’re not taking an Economics test out there, but you basically proved yourself wrong by defining elite so strictly and I thought you would catch that before you conclude your parapraph with “Does that describe Alex Smith? Of course not!” That was rather ignorant on your part, although you felt it necessary to try and validate your point which you failed to do miserably. Your biggest blunder however was even more egregious you a supposed sports expert started to list Alex failures since he was drafted and attributing his record to his inability or avg ability according to you. That was extremely ignorant considering Mike Nolan was not a winning coach, Mike Singletary was not a winning coach, Alex had to undergo shoulder surgery and attempted to return before he was fully healed and once again he was thrown into the fire. THeir offensive schemes were weak at best, Norv Turner took the first HC offer out to SD, Mike McCarthy too the first HC opportunity out to GB Alex NEVER had a chance to succeed. Lets not mention the Offensive line has been one of the worst in the league since Smith was drafted. He’s taken more sacks over the past few years than just about any QB in the league. The organization never surrounded their no.1 pick with any WR talent. Vernon Davis was nothing more than a drama queen up until 3 years ago. Had you attempted to do a little more homework you would not be making such stupid comments. Your a smart guy I hope, but your arrogance gets the better of you in this case. Your argument holds no weight and I know what elite looks like I study the game and watch the film that I can get my hands on at every opportunity. I could go on a few more pages, but Ill conclude with any QB you can name today Brady,Brees,Peyton or Eli would all have busted out or failed miserably had they had to go through Alex Smiths situation Im sorry to say. If you ask someone who knows what they are talking about is Alex Smith elite I would say that term is misused far too often but after two games Alex Smith has outplayed Aaron Rodgers,Tom Brady,Drew Brees,Peyton Manning, Jay Cutler,Matt Stafford and is second overall in the league rating and has thrown the most consecutive completions without a pick of any QB in the league. So as of week 2 2012 YES Alex Smith is not only elite hes one of the best QBs in the league. That much should be obvious to you do your homework, I had to put Eric Davis in his place the past two years when he and Bill Romanowski started a rant on the Green Room CSN show talking about Alex would never win games for the 9ers and that he was not an NFL starting QB. I corrected both of them back then, yes two ex-NFL players who think they know more than a fan because they played the game. Im sorry but a CB and a LB aren’t going to out knowledge me on offense. They might be experts at their own position but thats where it ends. I have a feeling you’ll continue to stoke the audience with slights at Alex Smiths accomplishments, but I could be wrong lets see how you handle it.

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