This offseason, the other two California football teams will have many different decisions to make, but the most important one will be the same. Do we give our former #1 pick another year to become the franchise QB we need, or is it time to cut ties and move in a new direction? The 49ers and Raiders each had a number one draft pick within a three year span. They both took potential franchise quarterbacks, but neither has panned out to this point. Though there are plenty of pros and cons for both dilemmas, I think the answers are pretty simple. One is favorable and one is not. Let’s take a look at how both QBs got to the point they’re at, and the potential outcomes moving forward.
2005: The 49ers were coming off a 2-14 season and held the first overall pick. There was plenty of talent available, but SF’s biggest need was at Quarterback. The choice came down to Alex Smith or Aaron Rodgers. In the end, Smith was heralded as the better athlete, and more intelligent. Now, for every Ronnie Brown, Braylon Edwards, or Demarcus Ware they passed on, there was also a Cedric Benson, Pacman Jones, or Mike Williams that would’ve been worse. But, since Rodgers was the only other guy they were going to pick, he’s the only one it’s fair to compare with. To this point, Rodgers has thrown for more yards and touchdowns on less attempts than Smith, while throwing less interceptions as well. Smith got off to a rough start in his first year, throwing 1 TD pass to 11 interceptions. In 2006, he looked to be coming into form, completing 58% of his passes and connecting on 16 TD passes to 16 INTs. Last season was derailed by a shoulder injury, however, and when he came back this season, Shaun Hill had beat him out for the starting job. Smith, however, replaced Hill in Week 7, and had an up and down final 11 games to end the season. He finished with his best ever TD to INT ratio at 18:12. He also completed over 60% of his passes. The problem, though, is he still has yet to live up to his potential, and the 49ers are left to question whether he ever will. I can’t say with confidence that he will, but the chances are much better than his Oakland counterpart. Smith’s shoulder probably still caused him some discomfort early this season, but he should be back to full strength by now. The reason I see him getting better is his intelligence. While there certainly are exceptions based on physical gifts, the best QBs, like starting pitchers in baseball, are the smart ones who figure out the game and learn to play within it. I think Alex Smith can only get better the more he plays.
2007: The Raiders were coming off a 2-14 season of their own and held the first pick also. Also in need of a franchise QB, Al Davis couldn’t resist the size of LSU’s Jamarcus Russell, and despite new Head Coach, Lane Kiffin’s objections, selected him with the #1 overall pick. While I never really questioned the Niners’ selection of Alex Smith, I knew this one was doomed from the start. We all knew Russell could throw a ball across the Bay from his knees, but how does that translate to playing QB in the NFL? What he made up for in physical tools, he lacked in the mental department. Three seasons later, he has alienated himself from teammates and fans, something that’s hard to do in Oakland. The combination of bonehead plays, lack of accountability and complete lack of pocket presence has lead many to question his future as this team’s quarterback. He was given the keys to the franchise this year and repeatedly drove the wagon off a cliff, with an untimely interception, sack, or fumble. In his three year career, he’s completed just 52% of his passes for a lowly 65.2 QB rating. He’s also thrown just 18 TD passes to 23 INTs. Those numbers would all surely be lower if 90% of his passes weren’t dump off passes to backs. When he was replaced by Bruce Gradkowski this year, the rest of the team clearly elevated their level of play. It looked as if they felt they had a much better chance with anyone other than Russell out there. Now, whenever Russell gets into the game, it’s the result of an injury to another QB, and he is inevitably greeted with boos from the Raider Nation. Russell has shown no signs of getting better, and even worse, his drive and desire to get better have been called into question far too often. The Raiders need to make a decision, but if I know Al Davis, Tom Cable will be far more likely to be shown the door. My only hope is that the Raiders at least pick up a new QB who could challenge, and ultimately beat out Russell for the starting spot.