Commentary

Slow and steady wins this race

Alex Smith might not have gaudy numbers, but he's worth rooting for

Updated: October 4, 2013, 2:30 PM ET
By LZ Granderson | ESPN.com

Alex SmithRich Schultz/Getty ImagesAlex Smith might not be a top fantasy pick, but his Chiefs have a perfect record.

Last season, with less than 13 minutes to go in the fourth and San Francisco up 31-3 against Buffalo, Alex Smith threw an incomplete pass to Vernon Davis, injuring his right middle finger in the process.

It was only one of six passes thrown by Smith that was not caught, as he finished the day 18-of-24 for 303 yards and three touchdowns.

After dinging his finger, Smith ran a couple of more plays -- scrambles -- before the 49ers took him out and subbed in Colin Kaepernick for the duration of the game. Kap tossed one pass for 7 yards and ran in for a score, but obviously the game was already won.

Afterward, Jim Harbaugh said Smith "was near perfect" and no one expressed too much concern about the QB's finger, although he did leave Candlestick with a light wrap around it.

The following week, the Niners got crushed 26-3 by the Giants, as Smith threw three interceptions and was sacked four times.

When most people refer to the injury that cost Smith his job, they usually point to the concussion he suffered in Week 8 during his first-half matchup against St. Louis. But the numbers suggest the 2005 No. 1 pick became vulnerable before that.

Prior to hurting his finger, Smith, who generally is not seen as much of a deep threat, connected on nearly 60 percent of his throws that were more than 20 yards downfield -- best in the league at that point. But afterward, he connected on only 20 percent and an interception.

If you want to know where Smith started to lose his grip on the job, start there.

In a Week 7 win against Seattle, he attempted only two deep passes, connecting on none. The following game against Arizona, although he finished 18-of-19 for 232 yards, 107 of the yards were gained by the receivers after the catch. Consequently, his average pass length was 5.6 yards downfield -- his lowest all season. And Smith wasn't exactly setting the field on fire before getting hurt against the Rams: 7-of-8, 72 yards, none deep.

Kap is the better QB -- he's more explosive, has a bigger arm and actually strikes fear in people. But why does that make Smith a doormat in so many people's eyes? During all of the winning, Smith was cast as more of a game manager than impact player, as if there's something wrong with "managing" not to lose in nearly a year. Perhaps we're tired of hearing "he's a good guy." Maybe his pedestrian numbers this season won't allow us to see that in three of four games when the Kansas City Chiefs got into the red zone, they scored a touchdown. Has fantasy football skewed our thought process to a point where we can't appreciate methodical wins?  

[+] EnlargeAlex Smith
AP Photo/John RaouxAlex Smith has two interceptions this season, and it could be argued neither was his fault.

Smith played with a separated shoulder in 2007 and was dogged for not playing well, as opposed to applauded for playing at all. He had five different offensive coordinators in as many years, and despite taking more character punches than Miley Cyrus, he has managed not to let the detractors wear him down. Something other athletes with more fragile egos -- think NBA's Steve Francis or baseball's Alex Rodriguez -- had a much harder time doing.

He has been honest but not contrite.

A competitor but not a disrupter.

An underappreciated and quiet warrior who somehow has found peace residing in the space between not being as good as fans hoped and not nearly as bad as his critics say. Remember, for all of his perceived shortcomings as a playmaker, Smith's postseason QB rating is 101.1, with five touchdowns and no interceptions.

And in Week 5 of 2012, it all finally came together for him.

A career game.

A franchise-record 621 yards of total offense.

Talk of the Pro Bowl.

And then like a Greek tragedy, one pass in the fourth quarter of a decided game set into motion a series of events that made Smith expendable -- again.

Damn right, I'm cheering for him.

That's not meant to reflect poorly on Kap or even Harbaugh, though the coach did look dishonest calling Smith "our guy" one week and working out Manning in a hoodie the next. Still, there are no true villains in this story, only disappointment for a guy who did nothing wrong. Drafted by an unstable franchise, finally gets a good coach, is a Kyle Williams fumble away from the Super Bowl, a season later he is benched with a 104.1 QB rating.

How can anyone not root for this guy to succeed?

Last week he got his revenge against the Giants via a 31-7 beat down at Arrowhead Stadium, including going 7-of-13 on downfield passes 10 yards or more. His 4-0 Chiefs have a better record than the 49ers. And he has more touchdown passes and fewer interceptions than his replacement to boot.

Kansas City is not scheduled to play San Fran in the regular season, so there's only one way Smith can exact his revenge against his former employer. And if that crazy scenario should somehow fall into place ... how could anyone not root for Alex Smith?

LZ Granderson | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine

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