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Breaking down Alex Smith: From a doubter to a believer

Time to find out firsthand what the new KC Chiefs quarterback can do. Read on for a review of Smith's nine games in San Francisco last season, which has caused MNChiefsFan, a Smith doubter, to change his tune.

Ezra Shaw

I don't want to write this column. In a perfect world I wouldn't be. In a perfect world I'd be writing yet another column debating which quarterback the Chiefs should draft No. 1 overall, who the Kansas City Chiefs should take with our second round pick, and why it's so awesome that the Chiefs re-signed Branden Albert to a long-term deal. Reality, however, does not care if you believe it. So it's time for me to accept reality. Alex Smith is very, very, very, VERY likely the Chiefs starter now and in the foreseeable future.

I didn't want the trade, and wrote about it at length. My basic premise is simple: I believe Alex Smith was a product of Jim Harbaugh. Basically, a glorified Matt Cassel. A guy who only succeeded when the deck was stacked in his favor.

The only reason I haven't been even more outspoken against this trade is one simple fact: I haven't looked at the game film yet. My opinion of Smith's time with the Niners (and especially the last two years) is largely based on two or three games I happened to catch live along with secondhand opinions. It's time to change that. Thanks to AP user jmcgoblue, I've got access to every Niners game of 2012, as well as the "All-22" coach's film of those games. I've known for weeks that I need to go back and do an "Alex Smith breakdown," but I've been putting it off. Mostly because I'm afraid. Afraid of being right. Afraid of killing that tiny glimmer of hope I have that somehow, some way, Smith is better than I think. But I can't let fear rule forever. It's time to go to the tape.

Since this is such a hotly debated topic (and since I'm scared to do this alone) I've decided to bring you fine folks along for the ride. I'm going to make my in-game notes a little more read-able for the masses and just post as I watch. I figure it'll either be a good distraction as my hope for this season is slowly crushed, or a great way to share a new sense of optimism. We'll get through this together!

Game 1: Niners vs. Packers

-Smith tucks the ball and runs a little too quickly for my taste. Now to be fair, I'm comparing him with Aaron Rodgers. But he's got a little bit of Cassel in him in that regard. On the plus side, he doesn't take off AS quickly and is faster when he does so.

-While Smith does tend to run more quickly than I'd like, he doesn't seem "spooked" by the pass rush. He's willing to move around and keep his eyes downfield. He's taken a few hits and sacks but isn't looking any more "happy feet" by the 4th quarter

-We're in the fourth, Green Bay has just scored a touchdown to pull within eight with a little over five minutes left. How will Smith respond?

-A nice play on second and five from the 32, rolling to the right and threatening to run long enough to pull a linebacker off the fullback, then floating a very "soft touch" pass for the first down and 10 more yards.

Overall he looked decent. Efficient. Only one or two passes that made me cringe, and the good far outweighed the bad.

-On third and 17 (after a sack where Matthews just owned the left tackle) Smith takes off WAY too quickly and runs for about five yards. Granted, it forces Green Bay to burn a timeout and was the "safe" play, but I really would like to see him hang in there longer.

-San Francisco's pass blocking is not as good as I'd expected. And this isn't just a "Smith is holding the ball forever" issue, as the pressure is coming pretty quickly when it comes. To be fair, Clay Matthews is a beast. But so far that San Francisco line looks overhyped at pass blocking (though not run blocking. There, it is as-advertised).

-Smith hits the "easy" throws. That alone would give the Chiefs an extra 500 or so yards of offense this year. Hits receivers in stride far more often than he he misses. That's a very, very clear difference from what I saw out of Cassel.

-Overall he looked decent. Efficient. Only one or two passes that made me cringe (sailed outs), and the good far outweighed the bad. Solid performance in a game where the heat was coming more often than not.

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Game 2: vs. Lions

-A really nice touchdown pass on the opening drive. Ball was in the air about 28 yards and it looked pretty effortless, great touch, hit Vernon Davis right in stride.

-A 45-yards-in-the-air STRIKE to Davis down the left sideline is dropped. Great pass.

-Smith stares down receivers longer than I'd like. He's no Brady Quinn, but it's still something I can see as an issue. Hasn't led to any trouble yet (as far as defenders reading him), so perhaps I'm being nitpicky (not that I'd EVER nitpick just to prove my preconceived biases correct or anything).

-Third and 10 conversion, a really nice job surveying the field and finding Davis. Strong throw as well.

-Flea flickers are a stupid, stupid idea in the NFL. No, that doesn't have anything to do with Alex Smith, but I feel the need to point this out. Memo to all NFL coaches: stop running flea flickers! These guys are too fast and too smart, and it's getting quarterbacks killed out there!

Alex Smith is genuinely athletic. I'd put him at "Aaron Rodgers athletic." That's two notches above "Brady Quinn athletic," which is a notch above "Matt Cassel athletic."

-Delanie Walker is either great or terrible. He catches a ton of passes but MAN he drops a lot of gimmies. Think of the worst caricatures of Dwayne Bowe and you got this guy.

-Alex Smith is genuinely athletic. So that's nice. I'd put him at "Aaron Rodgers athletic." That's two notches above "Brady Quinn athletic," which is a notch above "Matt Cassel athletic." For those interested, "Tony Romo athletic" is the zone between Brady and Rodgers. Throws well on the run to the right, as well.

-3:33 in the 4th, up 8, blood trickling down his nose from a gash roughly between his eyes, Smith delivers a 1st down pass to Crabtree to get to the Lions' 30. The "complete the pass with blood streaming down his face" part was a nice touch. Very Tamba Hali of him. Crap, am I starting to like this guy? Time to get more nitpicky, clearly...

-Same drive, a nice touch pass to Davis while rolling out to the right, defender closing in. Floats it in perfectly, in stride, Davis cuts back for the score. That's how you put your boot on someone's throat.

-Two games in and so far, so good. I'm not seeing "Cassel in a better situation." He's a genuinely better QB than Cassel, and it's not very close. Of course, this is two games. We shall see. I'm not ready to surrender to the Kool-Aid.

Game 3: vs. Vikings

-This is the game I fully expect to see Alex Smith confirm my suspicions that he's a bad quarterback. Should be fun, so I'll be taking more notes here...

-A solid third down conversion by Smith to Davis on the first drive. Hmmm...

-Overthrow to Randy Moss (to the left, roughly 20 yards). Would've been a toucdhown. I hate being right all the time.

-On third and eight we get a pass to the open guy... who is short of the first down marker. Not cool. I hate those passes. On the other hand, review shows that was his only real option.

-Getting the ball back down 11 with 5:24 in the half. Pressure's on. How will he respond?

-(same drive) Nice conversion on a 3rd and long.

-(same drive) 2nd and 15, offensive lineman Joe Staley gets DESTROYED by Jared Allen. Smith escapes and scrambles for seven or eight yards. A nice job making something out of crap.

-Another third down pass for a first. Now past the 50.

-Another pass for a first down to get to the 33.

-After another seven yard gain, Allen destroys Staley again (been doing it all day). Smith somehow escapes by spinning away and throws the ball into the sidelines. I don't care if that was an incomplete pass, Alex. Respect. I have no idea how he got away, unless he's hiding a taser in his pants and zapped Allen when he got close enough.

Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

-Ends the drive with a third and three throw off his back foot for no gain. Not an impressive ending, although I give him credit for staying in and taking a shot again (the line was getting killed). Got them to field goal range, so that's something. But the field goal is blocked and the lead remains 11. Ouch.

-The Niners D is just getting manhandled by the Vikings. Crazy. Gave up a field goal to end the half despite only needing to hold for a minute. 17-3 at the half

-Also, my impression of this game was inaccurate when I watched it live. Smith has been playing pretty well so far. He had Moss drop a pass to kill a good drive and had a field goal blocked on another. Staley is getting his lunch handed to him by Jared Allen. Much less impressed with him as a pass blocker than I thought I'd be.

-Real missed opportunity to start the half. Big kickoff return, no touchdown to capitalize. In all fairness, Smith only got a chance to pass on third down and upon review there was no one even KIND OF open (gotta love All-22 film). Scrambled for no gain. Field goal instead.

I came into this one expecting Smith to fall off the map and fulfill my expectations that he's "meh" at best ... what's happening to me?

-Wow, redemption on the next drive. Six-for-six with a couple of great throws. Really, really, really sharp drive to bring the game within four.

-San Francisco's defense is just playing terrible. Either giving up yards or dumb penalties allow the Vikes to go back up 11.

-Frank Gore fumbles the ball away first play of next drive after a great kickoff return. Vikes ball.

-Missed chance on third an deight, scrambled around, bought time, but missed open Manningham.

-Get ball back with seven min to go. Terrible drop by Davis on second after a short completion. That would've been a First down.

-Smith misses the throw on third down. Goes both ways, Alex. You gotta make that throw.

-Ball back with three minutes left down 11. Smith's line is trying to get him killed but he escapes for a nice scramble.

-Absolutely TERRIBLE throw for a pick after getting them to midfield. Awful, awful throw. Wow.

-Ball back with 1:47. After a great throw for a big gain to Manningham, Staley lets Jared Allen beat him again (at this point they look like Ryan Clady and Tamba Hali to me) and Smith gets CRUSHED without ever seeing it coming. Fumble. Game.

-I came into this one expecting Smith to fall off the map and fulfill my expectations that he's "meh" at best. That's not how it turned out. He had one absolutely atrocious pick, but the game was almost out of reach at that point. He was good enough to win, despite his left tackle getting just KILLED out there and despite some really crucial dropped passes. That said, this was his worst game so far. THAT said, it was better than 90 percent of the games I watched Cassel. Not even close. His throwing on the run, scrambling, and "escape" ability are way above what I expected. What's happening to me?

Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

Game 4: vs. Jets

-Surveys the whole field and checks down very quickly. He CAN do it.

-First game Colin Kaepernick is seeing more than one or two snaps. He's just a gifted runner. Matches up really well with an offensive line that is MUCH better at run blocking than pass blocking.

-Seriously, this Niners line is MASSIVELY overrated at pass blocking. I'm very, very surprised by what I've seen. One of the best run-blocking units I've ever watched though (second to... well, you're Chiefs fans, so you know. We heart you Big Willie Roaf!!!)

-I've always thought Frank Gore was overrated. After watching this much of him, I readily admit I was wrong. He's JUST fast enough and always gets 2-3 extra yards. Lots of wiggle.

-Long ball overthrow left side on a third and eight. Michael Crabtree had his man beat, and Smith missed him.

-ANOTHER third down drop by Walker. Man, that guy does so much but also has so many drops... Tough to tell if it evens out over time.

-Third quarter and a nice long (40 yards in the air or so) throw downfield that Mario Manningham mysteriously tries to catch with one hand while in stride (and of course drops it). Manningham was more concerned with pointing at the defender after the play than anything else.

-Not much to take out of this game, other than the Niners are a million times better than the Jets. Still, not seeing Cassel out there, or anything close to that bad. I may need to rethink how sure I am of my opinions before reviewing tape...

Game 5: vs. BIlls

-Nice 40-plus yard throw to Davis after looking off the safety. Had to settle for a field goal after three runs, though.

-Great throw to hit Crabtree in stride despite getting HAMMERED by a blitz. Huge gain called off due to a chop block. Can't chop while you block, guys!

-An absolutely brilliant long back-shoulder throw for a touchdown. Either that or an underthrown ball for a touchdown (my cynical, waiting-for-Smith-to-fail side said). Re-watching the route, definitely back-shoulder. Really, really pretty play to watch develop.

-Pocket collapsing around him, he scrambles up the middle for 30 yards.

-Wow. 40 yards for a touchdown to the left side (Crabtree, very much hit in stride). I'm... Not sure what to think right now.

-Good God, ANOTHER perfect throw? 20 yards down the right side? What in God's name is happening here???? I'm turning into a freaking Alex Smith fan. This cannot be happening to me.

Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-USA TODAY Sports

-FINALLY! An ugly throw under heavy pressure. Smith short-hops it. Is this the beginning of me being right? (later note... it was not)

-Kaep replaced Smith early in the fourth in an utter blowout. Smith could've legitimately passed for 450 yards and five ouchdowns had they not gone conservative. He was absolutely carving the Bills up. I'm speechless.

Game 6: vs. Giants

-The meltdown game. If the extreme suckage doesn't come here, it ain't happening.

-First drive was better than I thought . 4/6, one solid third down conversion. Bad throw when under pressure to end the drive, though. Still, got them to field goal range on a six minute drive, but a 43-yarder is missed.

-Nice third down conversion on second drive. Perfect throw on an out despite getting hammered by TWO unblocked guys off the edge.

-Dropped five yard gain next play. Out route, easy catch. Still waiting for the meltdown that I assume is coming.

-Another third down conversion, this one on third and five. Alex, buddy, give me a break and throw a pick already, will you? I spent a lot of time bashing you and this is getting embarrassing...

-THERE we go! Pick to start the second quarter on a long throw down the left sideline. Left it hanging in the air way too long, allowing the secondary player to get to it. Bad decision made worse by a bad throw.

-An unimpressive drive (hindered by a false start) ending with a sack. Smith held the ball too long, and although coach's film didn't show any open receivers, he should've taken off a little sooner to avoid the sack.

-Next drive on second and 17, a really nice out route to the opposite side of the field. Good for 12 yards. Those are the throws you need to see arm-strength-wise.

-Incomplete bomb down the right side on third and five ends the drive. Overthrew it a little, although the receiver still had a shot at it and didn't make a good play on the ball. The guy was open, though, and a GOOD throw results in a huge gain.

-First drive of second, third and six, Smith throws to Manningham on a slant. Throws it high and picked off by the safety. After re-watching five times or so to confirm, Manningham is equally at fault here. Dude gets a serious case of "alligator arms" and doesn't even try for the ball. That said, a better throw doesn't require a receiver to stretch out.

-Next series goes terribly wrong. Sack (this one not a "he held it too long" sack, but a "the line just collapsed" sack), followed by a delay of game penalty, followed by an awful pick. The defensive back reads Smith all the way and stepped right in front of the throw. So now I've seen all three picks, and two were absolutely on Smith.

-WHOA. Just when I thought I was able to pack it in and talk about how right I was, he drops a "55 yards in the air" bomb to Randy Moss. Touche, Alex Smith. Touche.

-Wow, NEXT PLAY Harbaugh pulls Smith for Colin Kaepernick, who proceeds to take an 11 yard sack. That would tick me off if I'm Smith. Pulling him right after they finally get it going?

-Fourth and 15 same drive. They go for it, being down a hundred points. An out route to Davis eight yards short of the first down? What? Looked to be his second read, but still.

-After a solid 12 yard completion to Crabtree, Kaep comes in for Smith to end the third quarter. I can say beyond a shadow of a doubt that Kaep looked inferior to Smith. He made one very bad throw to an open Moss and ran twice unsuccessfully. This was clearly not the moment he "took the job."

-Smith back in to start the fourth on a third and 10 (seriously, I'd be furious if I were him). Tried to scramble after surveying the field for a bit, nowhere to run, loss of 1.

-Next drive, three straight completions then a throwaway lead to a third down where the right tackle and right guard get absolutely destroyed by a stunt. Sack. End of drive. Smith doesn't see the ball again, as Kaep finishes last two minutes.

-Honestly, I expected this game to be worse. Smith had a rough stretch in the second quarter for sure, but I didn't see nearly the meltdown I expected (I was expecting a full game, "Matt Cassel vs. Ravens" kinda meltdown). He looked better than Kaep, who was thrown into the game a couple of very odd times and killed the momentum of two drives. You can clearly see Harbaugh is experimenting with Kaep and that read option. I think the writing was already on the wall at this point.

Game 7: vs. Seahawks

-Hopefully I manage to take fewer notes this game. I love you Arrowhead Pride, but this is getting exhausting (apparently typing is too much work for me these days).

-Nice bootleg throw. I really, really hope this gets incorporated into the Chiefs offense. Smith throws well on the run.

-Missed deep throw to end a drive. He had a receiver coming open and overthrew him.

-They're marching downfield with some solid runs and a couple of decent throws and Moss just flat-out drops a nice throw on a slant. He was closely covered, but a great throw. Moss, of course, was quite angry with the refs for not calling some kind of penalty (as it's well-known Randy Moss would never just drop a pass like that).

-Seattle's secondary is just legit. No open receivers.

-Harbaugh keeps force-feeding the read option with Smith in there. It does not go well. Seriously, I think Kaep was going to finish this season regardless of any injury to Smith. It was just a matter of time, as Harbaugh seems to really like that read option.

-Three straight downs San Francisco's tackles can't handle their guys one on one. Man, that Seattle defense is going to be SCARY this next year.

Nice bootleg throw. I really, really hope this gets incorporated into the Chiefs offense. Smith throws well on the run.

-Next drive, Smith is doing an excellent job going through reads quickly and hitting open guys (Gore twice).

-Those throws to the running back are a stark reminder of how BAD Cassel/Quinn were last year. I'm very interested in what Jamaal Charles can do with a coach interested in getting him involved in the passing game and a quarterback who can actually make the easy throws efficiently.

-Smith ends the drive 5/5 with a touchdown pass to Walker. REALLY sharp drive against a tough D.

-Bad pick in endzone. Should've just thrown it away. Good job buying time and rolling left, but you gotta know when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em.

-Seriously, Harbaugh clearly wants a running quarterback. Third and seven in the red zone and he they run a quarterback draw?

-Third and eight, a little under two minutes left, San Francisco with the ball and a 13-6 lead... And they call a quarterback sweep. I'm utterly flabbergasted. Did Smith lose the trust with that pick or something? Just baffling calls, especially considering the way Smith was carving the Hawks up on the drives prior to the pick. Baffling playcalling this game.

-Game 8: vs. Cardinals

-That Cardinals pass rush can bring it at times. This team really needs a quarterback. Badly. That D could be legit if it got ANY support (never mind poor Larry Fitzgerald)

-Not really anything different to take out of this game. Extremely efficient play, no bad throws that I saw. Just very methodically completing passes when asked to do so.

-Maybe ONE thing to take from this game is that the idea that Smith just falls apart under pressure is... well, for fear of calling anyone wrong, I'll just say that I'm not seeing it. Even when he's been getting hit all game he doesn't seem to get happy feet.

-One more thing for those who think I'm being too kind to Smith... This game against the Cards he was 18/19 for 232 yards and three touchdowns. And I'm not sitting here raving about it, because in my opinion it wasn't as impressive as the stat line (as opposed to the Giants game, where he actually looked a lot BETTER than the stat line). He was good in this game, for sure. But not really noticeably better than he's been in pretty much every other game outside the Giants game.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Game 9: vs. Rams

-First couple drives Niners don't do much, while the Rams are just carving up the defense. Smith and the offense get the ball back down 14-0. Rare chance to see how he does in a "we need offense NOW" situation.

-Solid drive, touchdown. The Rams brought the heat a few times and even got a sack, but a nice drive for both Smith and the Niners offense. Nice job stepping up, especially given half the drive may or may not have been after his concussion (insert obligatory "Smith forgot to play like Smith" here)

-I decided to finish watching the game, just to see if there was some kind of "magic" that took place once Kaep took over for Smith, especially since Harbaugh kept running a traditional offense. No such magic. Kaep is clearly an incredibly gifted runner and has a GUN for an arm, but no one watching this game in a vacuum would've predicted Smith would lose his job.

Conclusions (or something)

I just spent eight hours of my life watching a team that ISN'T the Chiefs to try and figure out what to expect from Alex Smith this year. My eyes hurt, I have a headache, and I'm almost certain my wife left me at some point yesterday (she'll be back. Maybe). But I HAD to know. I HAD to see for myself. I don't know about the rest of you, but I've learned over the years that you just have to check the tape for yourself if you want to know for sure.

With that said, I urge all of you to watch Alex Smith last season. Don't rely on my word as gospel. I do this so you don't HAVE to, but you still SHOULD check the tape if you want to have a truly informed opinion about any player, Alex Smith included. All that said, what can I tell you?

1) Alex Smith was not purely the product of Jim Harbaugh. I was wrong.

2) Smith is not only better than what the Chiefs have had at quarterback, he's significantly better. After watching all that tape, if someone put a gun to my head and said, "Matt Cassel or Aaron Rodgers: who do you think Smith is closer to?" I'd have to go with Rodgers. Seriously. Check the tape before you mock.

3) Smith absolutely is NOT Rodgers. He has some of the bad habits of Cassel. They're much, much less extreme though. If I were to point at his biggest weakness, I'd say it's either his deep ball (still not nearly as bad as some had told me) or his tendency to run when he shouldn't.

He's not "Matt Cassel+." He's able to help his team win games, not just avoid losing them.

4) Smith has some strengths. He's accurate. He's athletic. He's got a decent arm. He doesn't make many poor throws or decisions. People here that description and think, "Oh, he's just a game manager," but I have to slightly disagree. He IS a game manager, yes, but more than once I saw him do what it took to keep drives alive and put points on the board. He's not "Matt Cassel+." He's able to help his team win games, not just avoid losing them.

5) I'm not the smartest guy in the world. It was a tough realization, but about halfway into this I had to start eating crow about Smith. I was wrong. He, by all appearances, is a solid quarterback, not Cassel 2.0 as I've claimed many a time. I am ashamed, and hope that with some work we can make it through this (I have learned my lesson, though. No more big opinions on a guy when I haven't watched him.)

And so, after doing all the film review my eyes (and marriage) could handle, I'm firmly on board the "I'm willing to see how this plays out" bandwagon. And I urge you to join me. The tape has given me hope. And so has Alex Smith. This is the official start of the "Alex Smith will be Trent Green 2.0" (Trent, but athletic) bandwagon. Hop on! Trust me, there is PLENTY of room right now.

To very loosely quote a great commenter here on AP... screw it, I'm in.

10 more Alex Smith stories to read

1. The case for Alex Smith
2. The case against Alex Smith
3. 48% of Chiefs fans approve
4. Vegas odds on Alex Smith's stats
5. All your Smith-Cassel comparisons
6. Pics: Alex goes to Arrowhead
7. The best Alex Smith video
8. 'I'm looking forward to Sundays at Arrowhead'
9. Alex named starting QB
10. Contract extension coming?

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