Alex Smith just won 13 games for the San Francisco 49ers. While many in the media celebrated the arrival of Smith, a former first round pick who had never made good on his draft status, it's a misnomer to suddenly call him a great NFL starter despite his success this year. One look at other "mistake-free" quarterbacks tells you all you need to know about the year-to-year success of such quarterbacks.
The same people who will get taken in by Alex Smith this season will be the same ones applauding Matt Cassel from last season. The Chiefs quarterback won 10 games, took the AFC West title and took the team to the playoffs unexpectedly in a season that was supposed to be part of the long rebuild under Todd Haley and Scott Pioli. Suddenly, Cassel finished an efficient season and went to the Pro Bowl with 27 touchdowns and 7 interceptions.
Yet the Chiefs' schedule was soft in 2010, and it was reasonable even to diehard fans that the Chiefs would not repeat the same level of success in 2011. There were holes in the roster. The schedule was definitely tougher. The road would be harder. Once Jamaal Charles went down, the passing game was going to have to carry the team. And in the end, it could not.
There are definitely worse starting quarterback options in the NFL than Alex Smith and Matt Cassel. But mediocrity might be the biggest problem for any quarterback. They can perform just well enough that the team thinks they are set at the position so they won't do anything about it. The Chiefs went into this season with Cassel as the starter and Tyler Palko as the back-up. Somewhere, someone signed off on this as a solid enough roster to go through a season with. And the Chiefs paid the price for it.
The same could be said of the Washington Redskins, who were somehow convinced the Rex Grossman and John Beck were going to be competitive enough in the NFC East. Now the team is choosing in the top six of the draft and have to hope a better option is there for them or they might reach for a Ryan Tannehill.
At the very least, however, when a team bottoms out, they know they have to reach for something better. But when a team stays marginal, they continue to use the game manager year after year. The Chiefs talent is considerable at most positions, even dynamic at many. But if Cassel is going to be the guy at quarterback once again, the team is going to depend too heavily on the other positions and likely wilt in the end. They'll be competitive in some games and blown out in others. That's the nature of the problem. At some point, the bubble bursts. That's exactly what Chris Sprow of ESPN says to watch out for when discussing Alex Smith:
Smith has improved, but he also has 66 starts and about 2,000 throws. His career passer rating is 76.4, most similar since 2000 to that of Ryan Fitzpatrick (75.0), Chad Henne (75.7), J.P. Losman (75.6) and Trent Edwards (75.4). He was a mistake-free quarterback on a 13-3 team, but that can't be mistaken for a foundation, a home never to sell.
After all, we see these cases -- the pretty good QB on the great team, and then the fallout when they stay the course. Chris Chandler went 14-2 and reached a Super Bowl with the Atlanta Falcons; they went 5-11 the next season with him. Jake Delhomme went 11-5 and lost a Super Bowl with the Carolina Panthers before they fell to 7-9 the next season with him starting. Rex Grossman went 13-3 and reached a Super Bowl with a Chicago Bears team that followed the San Fran model -- great defense, fantastic special teams, turnovers galore -- then got benched en route to 7-9 the next season.
NFL history shows that the efficient quarterback model is not one that you can carry year to year. It works for a specific season in which the schedule is favorable, the schemes work wonders for the quarterback and the surrounding talent is healthy and superior. That was the case for the Chiefs in 2010 and the 49ers this year. For these teams to sign these players to long-term deals and bank on them for the long haul is to set up the franchise for dashed expectations.