Monday, November 26, 2012


When I was eight years old, I received my first subscription to SPORT magazine.  It was the direct competitor to Sports Illustrated, but eventually folded in 2000.  I never read a single article.  I was so loyal to my sports teams, that unless a Pirates or Steelers player found the cover, I would almost shove the magazine aside as if whatever was inside didn’t involve me. Later on when I was older, I would go back and find some of those magazines, revisiting some of the classic players that I had grown up with but had had little appreciation for:  Steve Carlton, Mike Schmidt, Dave Concepcion, Jack Youngblood, Earl Campbell and Steve Largent.  You can’t ignore history, because even though today’s players are tomorrow’s legends, a lot of them are where they are because of those that came before.  And those that forget history are doomed to repeat it.
49ers fans aren't nearly as forgiving as Alex Smith

In the mind of San Francisco fans, Head Coach Jim Harbaugh has plenty of good reasons to start second year QB Colin Kaepernick.  In fact, by its sheer nature alone, the choice of playing the younger and mercurial QB over the rather tedious and methodical Alex Smith isn’t a bad decision.  After all, Kaepernick’s got a lively arm.  He’s mobile, and can extend plays with his feet to make things happen.  He’s clearly more exciting to watch, and gives defensive coordinators more to think about.  So yes, maybe Harbaugh’s brain is in the right place.

But where he may have a lot of brains, he clearly has lost his heart.  Harbaugh’s sudden win-over-everything, satisfy-me-now attitude is exactly why the 49ers will eventually sink in their own muck.  His own muck.  The muck that may get them a Super Bowl win but at the expense of the relationship of the guy who got them there.  Yes, Harbaugh developed a system that exploited Alex Smith for whatever his talents could give them.  However, what they got was a 13-3 record last year, and they were just a baby’s breath away from the Super Bowl berth.   This year, Smith's performance got them a 6-2-1 record.  They command the NFC West now, and though their arrival to prominence might coincide with developing a top-notch defense, make no mistake about it.  Smith led this football team, completing over 61 percent of his passes in 2011, and raised his bar even higher to 70 percent for 2012. 

And this is when Harbaugh has decided to take Smith’s chance to fulfill his career promise away from him.  In the marathon that has been Smith’s career and life’s ambition, Harbaugh has moved the finish line maybe even out of reach.


At this moment?

After all Alex Smith has gone through? 

This is how Jim Harbaugh rewards Alex Smith for making Harbaugh one of the youngest successful coaches in the NFL.  He chooses the younger, the prettier, the easier, and by doing so impugns his own character as a man that has as little appreciation for his players as most Americans do for their democracy. 

The NFL is a quarterback driven league right now, and pundit after pundit was willing and even excited to bash the former Utah Ute as a bust of catastrophic proportions when the 49ers were the embarrassment of their division.  Even though Smith had multiple coordinators in his first six years, endured season-ending injuries in 2008 and 2010, and the 49ers organization itself underwent coaching and scheme changes, Smith sewed his oats as the rodeo clown for this team, taking beating after beating, on the field and in the media.  Then, after delivering a 13-3 season last year, he endured the embarrassment of  his ownership and coach courting Peyton Manning in the off-season, forcing him to seek out other organizations willing to take a chance on a QB that his own organization wasn’t willing to re-sign after his best season.  He was being labeled as having a fluky season at best.  When the Manning deal soured, he returned to San Francisco, tail between his legs, and proved that 2011 was no fluke.  He has delivered his best season as a pro.

The thanks he gets -- another concussion taken for the team and some hope by that team that the brain knock he took caused some sort of quarterback amnesia – as if Smith or for that matter anyone could erase the repeated injustices this team has continually thrust his way. He’s contracted through the 2014 season, but payments associated with making the team are part of the heavily incentivized contract.

And should Kaepernick, in his attempts to recreate John Elway or Brett Favre while evading a persistent pass-rusher, sustain an injury, it will be Smith called onto the field to rescue this 49ers team yet again; the same team that has turned their respective backs against him over and over.  Should he fail, the fans will once again relegate him to goat status.  Should he succeed, he’ll find himself possibly the only quarterback to come off winning a Super Bowl to not be invited back to his own team since Trent Dilfer. 

It's very simple.  Alex Smith should quit.  No employee, contract or not, would take this kind of repeated bashing.  He has been shown the door directly by an organization that he has led to a 19-5-1 record the last two seasons, something most organizations would die for.  As far as the 49ers are concerned, this latest move speaks volumes as to how much they credit Alex Smith for any of it. 

Whether the San Francisco 49ers organization or fans are aware, the message being sent to the players is louder and clearer than any message sent to them in a concrete email.  It says you don’t matter.  No matter how well you play, no matter your contribution, we will forget you as quickly as we’ll forget our last loss. Tight End Vernon Davis bit his tongue in front of the camera Sunday, saying they were ‘fine’ with Kaepernick starting, and that they’ll abide by their coach’s decision.  After all, they are players.  They have to.

Yes, Colin Kaepernick is more evasive.  He may have a better arm.  He may even someday be a legend.  And Jim Harbaugh may win the Super Bowl.  But the victory now will be shallow.  It will be as hollow as Harbaugh’s caved out chest, eviscerated by his and his organization’s thirst for victory.  Should the Lamar Hunt trophy be hoisted in San Francisco this year, expect it to be the last for some time.  Everyone in that locker room now knows where Harbaugh’s loyalties lie.  They know it’s not with them.  It lies with the trophy, and his moment in the sun.

He’s forgotten way too quickly who helped get him there.  Like many others before him, he’s broken the rungs of his own ladder.  When the Ravens let Dilfer go, they did so because he so obviously wasn’t a tremendous play-maker.  This was true.  But he was a leader, and part of a team that was special.  The Ravens didn’t return to the Super Bowl and haven’t since. 

Things might look shiny and bright for San Francisco on the horizon, but there’s a stormy sea ahead.  There’s an ocean fraught with the history of those whose memories are short, and loyalties are hollow.  And unfortunately, those that don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it.