The burden of going No. 1: Inside Alex Smith’s NFL survivor story

ASHBURN, Va. — Alex Smith was a bust. And then he wasn’t.

He was a quarterback drafted first overall, headed for a short career, derailed by injuries and coaching changes and his own performance. And then his career arc shifted; this offseason, he talked about playing until he’s 40.

At age 34, Smith is starting his 14th NFL season, his first with Washington. In his first eight seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, he played for three head coaches and seven offensive coordinators. He endured several injuries and benchings and one pay cut. For the past five seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs, he made three Pro Bowls, stayed healthy, never lost his starting job and made the playoffs four times.

“I’m not surprised at all,” said Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, who coached Smith at Utah. “I’m more surprised about the start and the blame that the QB of a bad team was getting. I knew at some point he’d get in the right situation and thrive.

“I’d get irate when I’d see things about Alex not being an NFL quarterback. I thought they were out of their minds. I said one time if Alex is not a pro quarterback, then I’ve never coached one because he’s the best I’ve been around.”

There have been 22 quarterbacks drafted first overall since 1970. Of the 13 who are retired, six played in more than three Pro Bowls and five won a Super Bowl. Three (Terry Bradshaw, John Elway and Troy Aikman) are in the Hall of Fame and a fourth (Peyton Manning) will be once he’s eligible. That’s the bar for the No. 1 pick.

Smith isn’t on pace for induction in Canton, but he’s already had a long, solid career.

In the past five seasons, Smith trails only Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady with his touchdown-to-interception ratio of 3.1. Among quarterbacks who played at least 60 games since 2013, Smith ranks eighth in passer rating and 10th in Total QBR.

Regardless of where Smith sits among current quarterbacks, he has overcome a terrible start.

“His path was so turbulent,” said Redskins tight end Vernon Davis, a teammate in San Francisco. “When you have turbulent times like that, you either break or you excel. He’s done a great job excelling.”

Ignoring the noise

Smith was drafted by a 49ers franchise that won five Super Bowls between 1981 and ’94, led by Hall of Fame quarterbacks Joe Montana and Steve Young.

Smith, the No. 1 pick in 2005, represented hope.

“I had a lot of expectations. I carried a lot of weight, being the No. 1 pick,” Smith said. “I played with that weight. I played with a lot of anxiety. Worried, trying to be perfect. All those things hindered me as a player. It took a long time for me to overcome that. It was a long time.

“You constantly self-doubt. Sometimes when you don’t have any good to counteract that, you can get really dark. But yeah, very frustrating. Then you have to go out there and do it. For me, I was able to slowly do that, go out and play well.”

Smith’s father, a former high school coach, recalls the negative vibe he’d get from his son early in his career, a byproduct of playing for a 49ers organization they viewed as dysfunctional. Doug Smith would remind his son to worry about what he could control.

“You could see this weight on him,” he said. “There was the expectation to do well, but they weren’t prepared to do well — him or the rest of the team. … His resiliency comes from a big part of being able to let a lot of that stuff — that was unfavorable, unfortunate, that was outside his control — go and not let it destroy you.”

During a commencement address at Utah three years ago, Alex Smith said he agonized over each mistake.

“This became a paralyzing cycle,” he said that day. “My entire mindset became, ‘Don’t screw up.’ Literally, I would tell myself, ‘Don’t screw up. Don’t throw an incompletion. Don’t throw an interception. Don’t fumble. Don’t drop the snap.’”

There wasn’t an aha moment that caused Smith to change that mentality. He called it a gradual process, and by the end of his time in San Francisco, he was no longer bothered by outside distractions.

“Listening to some of the noise that was out there and wondering why is the narrative the way it is,” Smith said, “you worry about that. The ultimate growth step is completely not worrying about any of that. You play for your teammates; you play for each other. Certainly the fan base at large, but a lot of the noise that’s out there will overwhelm you. You’ll never make everybody happy.”

More than football smarts

Smith earned his degree from Utah in just two years, a byproduct of graduating from high school with some college credits in hand. Ivy League schools recruited him out of Helix High School in suburban San Diego, where he was a high school teammate of future USC star Reggie Bush.

But Smith told his parents he would play at a higher level than the Ivy League. Redskins coach Jay Gruden in the spring called Smith the smartest person he has been around “without a doubt.” Others have said the same.

There’s Chiefs coach Andy Reid: “He’s book-smart; we knew that. But he has football smarts. You can trust him with the keys to the car, and I’m not talking about a beat-up car — I’m talking about a Rolls-Royce.”

And Meyer: “He is the most intelligent player I have ever coached.”

Jim Hostler, now the Packers’ receivers coach/passing game coordinator, was one of Smith’s QB coaches in San Francisco. “I’ve been around some bright ones, really bright,” said Hostler, who has worked with Chad Pennington (a Rhodes Scholarship finalist) as well as All-Pro quarterbacks Rodgers and Andrew Luck. “We’re talking about probably the premier minds in this game and Alex has just as much mental agility as those guys have.”

The Chiefs gave Smith more freedom to change playcalls than any other quarterback Reid had coached, and it helped turn their fortunes.

Former NFL offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz played the 2013 season with Smith after the quarterback arrived from San Francisco. The Chiefs’ offense wasn’t quite as developed as it would become but, Schwartz said, “Alex always got us in the right spot. More often than not, no free rushers hit Alex. That’s a sign he knows what he’s doing.”

Missed opportunity

Smith hasn’t become a more consistent passer because of his legs, but he has become a more dangerous quarterback. His first NFL head coach, Mike Nolan, wishes he and his staff had incorporated Smith more in the running game early in his career.

“It would have set him apart as a rookie had he done that, and the beginning of his career would be looked at completely different,” Nolan said. “That’s one of our biggest mistakes. No one in the league was doing it, but that doesn’t make it OK, but had we been on the cutting edge as people were with Cam [Newton] and Russell [Wilson]. … That’s how Alex should have been used. Had that happened, his start would have been different.”

When Jim Harbaugh’s staff took over in San Francisco in 2011, Smith benefited. However, it took Smith’s trade to Kansas City to tap into all that he could do. With San Francisco, Smith averaged 2.7 runs per game and 3.59 yards per carry. In his five years with the Chiefs, Smith averaged 4.2 runs per game and 5.27 yards per attempt.

His passing numbers improved as well. He threw for 81 touchdowns and 63 interceptions with the 49ers; he tossed 102 touchdowns to 33 picks for the Chiefs.

“I went through a lot of what he did in college and pulled out similar things and then we talked and all that experience with different offenses, we pulled out things he was comfortable with and built around it,” Reid said. “The more he grew in the offense, the more things he liked that we did. He felt comfortable. The RPO [run-pass option], that’s all stuff he did in college.”

Smith ran a combined 286 times in three seasons at Utah.

“What sets him above those other guys is that he stresses you and that’s something a lot of game managers can’t do,” Nolan said. “They dink and dunk to everyone, but they don’t have the added dimension Alex does. That’s a huge advantage. All the other stuff sounds good, but when you get down to it and you’re trying to keep Alex from beating you, he has an added dimension to his game.”

Knocked down, getting up

Teammates say Smith’s approach never changes, whether he’s starting, benched or hurt. When Shaun Hill beat out Smith for the 49ers’ starting job in 2009, Smith did what he’d always done: He watched game film and made suggestions, and he helped Hill out before and during games. Smith was starting again by midseason.

“Most guys in that situation would have left you out there to dry and hope for you to make mistakes,” said Hill, who retired after his 15th NFL season in 2016. “I’ve been around guys that are excellent starters and then something happens and they take a back seat for a little bit and it ruins their career because they can’t handle that part of it. But with Alex, it’s that mentality of ‘team first’ that has really sustained him.”

In 2012, Smith was playing well but suffered a concussion and lost his job to Colin Kaepernick. Before the NFC Championship Game at Atlanta that season, Smith pushed hard for the 49ers to run a no-huddle attack to combat the noise, giving Kaepernick a greater chance for success. The 49ers won.

“I admire that maybe as much as anything in his career,” Doug Smith said his son’s benching. “Given a crap hand — because I’m biased; what parent isn’t? — he was able to say, ‘That wasn’t Kaepernick’s decision. It’s not Kaep’s fault that it happened.’

“You can end up bitter and it consumes you. Not that it didn’t hurt. It clearly hurt. He didn’t believe that was the right decision for the 49ers to do that at that point. But he was able to compartmentalize it. He didn’t let it change him.”

Five years later, Smith was again nudged aside for a younger alternative. When the Chiefs traded up and then drafted Patrick Mahomes with the 10th pick in 2017, it was clear Smith’s time in Kansas City was winding down.

“I don’t think he flinched; he was great with Patrick,” Reid said. “He’s been around the league long enough to know that this could be a distraction, but he never, never went that way. He wasn’t afraid to share with Patrick. He didn’t have to be and he wasn’t asked to do that, but that’s just the person he is. Then he put together the best year he’s ever had. No distractions, more responsibility than he’s ever had.”

Some call it steadiness.

“He’s really even-keeled,” Schwartz said. “Alex was just steady. That sometimes has maybe been a detriment to him. Sometimes they want that shiny new toy. But he’s as steady as they come.”

Others attribute it to mental strength.

“On a competitive scale of 1 to 10, he’s a 10 and that’s related to mental toughness,” Meyer said. “He could have a bad play and rebound, and that’s my sign of mental toughness. Also tied to mental toughness is physical toughness. People don’t realize how tough he is.”

Reid put it more simply: “Don’t get surprised by those blue eyes. He’s a good-looking dude who wears skinny jeans and the whole deal, but he’s a tough kid.”

Others cite his stubbornness. When Smith was around 2 or 3 years old, he and his dad were in a two-person dinghy at Lake Tahoe. The youngster splashed his father and laughed. The dad splashed him back and told him the game was over. But it wasn’t. Smith splashed his father again. His father warned him again and doused him with more water. Again, he declared the game over. Smith then grabbed his dad’s sunglasses and threw them in the lake. Game over.

“Early on, I’d say as young as 2 years old, he was clearly the kid we said to ourselves, ‘We just can’t take him in public.’ He is so stubborn and so single-minded,” Doug Smith said. “We had to hope he got better, and he did. It got easier. He retained that talent, and underlying that, he has focus and determination and drive.”

Regardless, it’s among the traits that led him to Washington as a much different quarterback, a survivor who has been knocked down. But his career, entering its 14th season, remains on a steady climb.

“Every guy hits hard times,” Smith said. “It’s hard. It’s really hard. I realized the commonality among the guys that found a way and had longevity. They just kept at it and they kept getting back up.”

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