Developing a passer

Posted: April 1, 2014 in Football, New entries
Tags: , ,

Saturday, April 23rd, 2005. The 2005 NFL draft was moved to the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York. Paul Tagliabue hadn’t yet retired from his service as commissioner. San Francisco, the once proud NFC red-and-gold franchise humbly started off the draft with a glaring need at quarterback and the first overall selection. Aaron Rodgers, Jason Campbell, and Alex Smith had each finished terrific seasons at their respective schools as Quarterbacks, but Smith’s statistics stood out the most. Smith in particular had come off a royal torching of Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl, winning 35-7. Smith dismantled Pitt’s defense throwing four touchdowns and accounting for nearly 400 yards of total offense. He displayed dazzling talent as a passer and deceptive athleticism. San Francisco looked forward to the future taking the California native who looked a little like a former 49er who also played at a Utah school, Steve Young.

Unfortunately for Smith, San Francisco did not provide an environment where young passers can excel. Teams that draft first overall rarely do. In 2005, the ‘Niner’s top receiver was a young, sometimes impressive and sometimes inconsistent Brandon Lloyd. Rookie Frank Gore split time with veteran Kevan Barlow for playing time at running back. Pass rushers Bryant Young and Julian Peterson held together a shaky defense. Smith finished his rookie season completing barely more than half of his passes with one touchdown and eleven interceptions. Not until 2011 with the arrival of Jim Harbaugh did Alex Smith truly shed the label of ‘bust’ so hastily assigned to first round picks who fail to materialize into star quarterbacks the moment they’re thrown onto the field. Coaches Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary drafted important pieces on the 49ers roster, but failed to recapture the NFC West during their time. Harbaugh came into San Francisco and saw Smith had potential, but would never reach it the way the offense had been structured in the past.

Instead of tasking Smith to win every game on his shoulders, Harbaugh built a strong defense and paired it with an already strong running game. Instead of asking Smith to do more, Harbaugh simplified the game for Smith. Smith’s new responsibilities were to keep the hashes moving with the fastest Tight End in football and the sure-handed Michael Crabtree. On 3rd and long situations, Smith would now throw a screen pass allowing for a solid punt putting the defense in better field position. This ultimately gave the team more momentum than trying to force a bad pass into coverage that would hopefully not get intercepted.

Alex Smith still carries the tag of ‘game manager’ because of his role in Kansas City as the custodian of the football. Despite his success in the playoffs and against strong teams such as New Orleans, Green Bay, and his recent four touchdown performance against Indianapolis that saw KC’s defense collapse, Smith’s still a ‘game manager.’

Contrast Alex Smith and his situation in San Francisco with Aaron Rodgers and his environment in Green Bay. Rodgers wasn’t asked to lead the team until his fourth season. And until that time, he sat and watched the legendary Brett Favre lead an NFL offense. Smith was thrown into a fire and expected to fix the team around him all with his own play. Rodgers was tutored for three seasons and surrounded by a cast of quality talent before being asked to lead the team.

Would Rodgers have developed into just as good a passer were he to be drafted by San Francisco and thrust into a starting role like Alex Smith was? It’s impossible to tell, but history suggests Rodgers may not have had the same success in Smith’s situation than in the situation he came up in.

Quarterbacks are asked to win now. Cam Newton set nearly impossible standards by throwing for over 4,000 yards and producing over thirty touchdowns as a rookie on a struggling Carolina team. Looking at the Aaron Rodgers experiment suggests that throwing a QB into the fray week one may not be the best recipe for success at developing a passer, that Cam Newton may be the exception to the rule, not the new rule.

Some qb’s rise naturally to the top. Russell Wilson straight out won the starting job in Seattle. Matt Flynn couldn’t compete with the two-sport athlete and backed Wilson up. Wilson seems to have developed fine, though in an environment that limits what he’s asked to do.

It makes little sense to start your veteran when the rookie gives you the best chance to win. But if you’re an NFL GM out there, and you have a veteran at QB maybe Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, or Drew Brees. Take a look at the QB’s available in the draft BEFORE you need a new one. Brock Osweiler, Ryan Mallett and Luke McCown don’t inspire the same confidence as their starters if a sudden injury or retirement were to elevate their position to starter. Jimmy Garoppolo or Aaron Murray may not grab as many headlines as other “first round” but left in the “QB oven” for a few seasons behind a solid starter and they have a chance to come out golden brown ready to lead an offense.

Before you have a baby, you go out and buy a crib, you take time off work, you buy baby food, and you baby proof the house so your offspring doesn’t eat the rusty nails in your basement. Before that special young lady comes over for dinner you clean the kitchen, you vacuum the carpet, you practice your finest hygiene skills in order to best NOT look like a homeless man and in order to persuade her to come back. Before you draft a young quarterback, give him some time to learn the game. Give him a defense that will make his job doable. Give him a mentor who’s been there, done that, and loves to play football. Give him a chance.

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