The money was good for Alex Smith, but nothing else was. He wasn’t the consensus No. 1 overall pick leading up to the draft, because there wasn’t one in 2005. but the worst NFL’s worst team in 2004 needed a quarterback. Only Smith and Aaron Rodgers deserved consideration, the San Francisco 49ers were unable to trade down, and the rest is history.
From there, every slight, every unfortunate occurrence, every obstacle Smith faced was due to a vain football coach named Mike Nolan.
It was Nolan who took Smith over Rodgers. Urban legend has it that Rodgers refused to perform drills for Nolan that had nothing at all to do with football, while Smith — always eager to please — did all the jumping jacks Nolan asked for. Regardless, drafting Smith and, in the process, stashing the his bank account with all that guaranteed dough was the best thing Nolan ever did for former Utah Ute star. After that, it seemed as if Nolan was dead set on ending Smith’s career prematurely.
— After Tim Rattay led the 49ers to a 28-25 victory over the Rams in Nolan’s coaching debut, a game in which Arnaz Battle also completed two passes for 27 yards, the 49ers got shellacked by the Philadelphia Eagles, 42-3. Smith came into the game in the fourth quarter and threw one incompletion.
— Smith sat during the 49ers’ third game, a 34-31 loss to Dallas. A week later in Mexico City, Nolan inserted Smith late against the Arizona Cardinals and made him the starter the following week against Indianapolis. The 49ers lost 28-3 to the Colts and Smith was sacked five times. Smith injured his knee in the process, then played a little bit two weeks later at Washington in a 52-17 loss (Smith was sacked five more times in that game). Smith sat for a while after that, but played in each of the last five games. He was sacked 17 times in those contests, but the 49ers won the last two and Smith threw his first NFL touchdown pass in the season finale against Houston.
— Smith’s upward trend continued in 2006 under a new offensive coordinator. Norv Turner replaced Mike McCarthy, who left to become the head coach of the Green Bay Packers. Smith made huge improvements in every statistical category in 2006 and played every snap in a 7-9 season. Then Turner left for San Diego, and things deteriorated from there…
— Nolan chose Jim Hostler to replace Turner, but that was hardly Nolan’s biggest sin. In Week 4 Smith was sacked (see a theme?) by Rocky Bernard and separated his shoulder. The 49ers’ training staff forced Smith to lift heavy weights throughout his rehab process, and Smith’s shoulder never recovered. Smith went to Nolan, explained the situation and told his head coach that he didn’t feel he could help the team with a weak arm and sore shoulder. Nolan agreed, then told the media that Smith was medically cleared and his problems had nothing to do with being injured. Both Nolan and Smith threw barbs at each other through the press, and Nolan’s days were numbered.
— Despite revamping his offense by choosing Mike Martz as his offensive coordinator (who chose J.T. O’Sullivan over both Alex Smith and Shaun Hill as his starting quarterback), Nolan was fired midseason and replaced by Mike Singletary (who was lured to the 49ers from the Baltimore Ravens by Nolan). In effect the 49ers moved from one head coach who had no idea how to handle quarterbacks to a head coach who was even more clueless.
— Singletary replaced O’Sullivan with Hill, a move Nolan said he should’ve made — only with Smith as the one getting the hook:
Nolan went over one regret he had from his time in San Francisco.
“I always thought [Hill] was good,” Nolan said via the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. “I would admit to making a mistake not making him a starter at the end. The last year I was there I should have [switched QBs] because he’s a baller. . . . He checks it down. But he’s a guy the players trust will lead them to the end zone. That’s a huge factor.”
(Translation: Alex Smith is not one of those guys. Or a baller.)
Nolan always tried to scapegoat Smith as the reason why his first (and only) stint as an NFL head coach was a failure, but in reality it was Nolan who indirectly and directly acted in ways to sabotage Smith’s career. It was Nolan who impatiently threw a 21-year-old Smith into action behind one of the worst lines in franchise history, subjecting Smith to 29 sacks (Smith was sacked 14.9% of the times he dropped back to pass in his rookie season). It was Nolan who chose Hostler and Martz. It was Nolan who made Smith to look like a player who refused to play through a minor injury, as detrimental a label as one can hang on an NFL player.
One can call out the York family for hiring Nolan and giving him too much power, and for hiring Singletary to replace him. But at least Jed righted those wrongs by hiring Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh has been called out by Smith’s supporters — and after watching Smith handle the garbage he was put through by Nolan and other 49ers coaches, it’s easy to see why there are so many Smith backers out there — for replacing Smith after the quarterback suffered a concussion. The backlash had a lot to do with Smith playing his best football at the time.
But while Harbaugh’s treatment of Smith often seemed cold, with all the Peyton Manning rumors and then the way he inserted Colin Kaepernick midseason, the 49ers’ current head coach also saved Smith’s career. He recruited him back to the 49ers when everyone figured he was a goner after the 2010 season. He built up Smith’s shattered confidence, showcased Smith’s skills (intelligence, leadership, poise under pressure, and a lack of ego that’s rare for a starting NFL quarterback), and in the process allowed Smith to put two good years on his resume after six disappointing ones.
Jed York and Harbaugh have allowed Smith to take over a brand new team in 2013, and he’ll only be 29 years old when he takes his first snap for the Kansas City Chiefs. Many have pointed to Smith’s tenure in San Francisco as yet another example of life being unfair. If there’s any fairness in the world, Nolan will never get another head coaching job.