By Pete Baxter
Alex Smith’s career arc as a professional football player has had more peaks and valleys than the Rocky Mountains.
He kicked things off with the achievement of going number one in the 2005 draft after a highly decorated three year run at the University of Utah.
Smith followed up that high with a half-decade of losing football with a moribund 49ers franchise. He was playing in the shadow of an emerging superstar in Aaron Rogers who had been drafted 23 spots later in the same draft. He was playing in the shadow of some true legends at quarterback from the previous decades in Steve Young and Joe Montana.
The word “bust” had been thrown around for several mediocre seasons before he finally broke through under the coaching of Jim Harbaugh. In 2011, Smith led the 49ers to an outstanding 13-3 record with a highly efficient 17 to five touchdown to interception ratio. Smith led the 49ers to victory in his first playoff appearance in a divisional round win over the Saints. They would fall to the Giants in the NFC Championship game, but after a brutal beginning to his professional career, Alex Smith had cemented himself as a successful, winning starting quarterback. The future was bright, and his career was peaking.
In 2012, Smith started off hot, leading the 49ers to a 6-2 record before going out with a concussion against the Rams. Que Colin Kaepernick, who took full advantage of his time in relief of the injured Smith and instantly started a quarterback controversy, which he would win by season’s end despite Smith having been on pace for a career season. Kaepernick never looked back, and led the 49ers to the Super Bowl, marking an abrupt end to Smith’s tenure as starter in San Francisco, yielding yet another valley in Smith’s roller coaster career.
Smith had showed more than enough to garner another chance, however, and was dealt before the 2013 season to the Kansas City Chiefs. Smith hit the ground running in Kansas City with a career year, earning a Pro Bowl nod, and leading the chiefs to an 11-4 record in his starts. Smith would lead the Chiefs to four straight winning seasons.
By 2017 Smith put together a borderline MVP season, having thrown for over 4,000 yards for the first time in his career along with 26 touchdowns and just five interceptions . However, once again the Chiefs were halted in the playoffs, falling in the Wildcard Round to the Tennessee Titans. Despite his individual success on the season, the Chiefs had seen enough. Smith would never start for the Chiefs again, as the Patrick Mahomes era began as quickly as the Smith era ended. Déjà vu?
Once again, though he had not shown quite enough to keep his previous job over the hot young hand, he had shown more than enough to warrant yet another shot, which he received in Washington.
He got off to a strong start, leading the team to 6-4 through his first ten games. Things seemed to once again be on the upswing for Smith, before he faced his greatest dose of adversity yet (unrivaled by almost any other QB in modern times, in fact). While being sacked by J.J Watt and Kareem Jackson of the Texans, Smith suffered a devastating compound fracture to his tibia and fibula in his right leg. As brutal as the initial injury was, the period to follow only got worse, as he developed a life-threatening infection that nearly cost him his leg.
In the deepest valley of his career (if not his life), the odds were against Smith ever walking again, let alone playing football. And yet…
Flash forward to Week 5 of the 2020 NFL season. Nearly two years after his horrific injury, Smith emerged from the sidelines against the LA Rams to replace an injured Kyle Allen. The whole world watched and flinched in unison (admittedly, including his head coach Ron Rivera) as he was sacked six times that game, but just kept getting up.
While he would miss two games later in the season following a bone bruise in his right leg, Smith showed that not only had he done the seemingly impossible and recovered from his injuries, but he was back to being a true starting quarterback just two years later. He led the Washington Football team to a 5-1 record in his starts and earned his team a playoff berth.
From the darkest depths of his career (and perhaps, his life), Smith had once again emerged as a football slinging phoenix from the ashes. This amazing return to form earned Smith the Comeback Player of the Year award for the 2020 season. Has there ever been a more deserving man for this award, on what, really, his fourth and greatest career comeback campaign?
So now, as Smith makes the decision to end things on his own terms, I am ecstatic for this man.
I know his first choice was likely to be given one last shot for success as a starting quarterback, and the league seemed reluctant to give him that opportunity. But for me, given the epic, unmatched up and down nature of this man’s journey, I can not think of a more perfectly suited way to end his football story than a Comeback Player of the Year campaign.
Smith was tested over, and over, and over again during his NFL tenure. Every single time, he took his lumps like a professional, and worked and worked and worked some more to earn his next opportunity. And when those opportunities came, he answered the call.
Even after a two-year battle to save his leg…
Kudos and the utmost respect to Alex Smith. He ends things on his own terms, before the league or anyone else can do it for him. He ends his decorated career at the highest, most amazing peak he had yet reached, or that few may ever reach, having overcome seemingly impossible odds to achieve success one more time as an NFL starting quarterback.
While his individual numbers will most likely never earn him a place in the Hall of Fame, he will forever have one of the greatest stories in the history of sports, and for that, he will never be forgotten.