There are many distinct doors for the Bears to choose when seeking a quarterback this off-season. But unlike your standard game show fare, there’s more at stake than sharing an awkward smile with Drew Carey.
Behind Door No. 1 is the receiver turned passer enjoying a middle-career resurgence. A once prodigious man now plagued by a shoulder held together by strings awaits behind Door No. 2. The quintessential, uninspiring Band-Aid on a gaping wound needing stitches, knocks on Door No. 3. Something of a unique flavor for everyone to get excited about, and nitpick every minor flaw to the point of mental, physical, and I imagine for a select few, spiritual exhaustion.
The comfortable option for the Bears to endure is also the choice that will be most palatable. The least polarizing. The least controversial. The seamless fit, like a glove. A late twist in the script has added a fourth door to the day time show proceedings, and the familiar Alex Smith waits with flowers on the other side.
If one wants to understand what Smith would bring to the table in Chicago, it requires comprehension of his winding journey. Of an atypical NFL career.
When a team selects a quarterback at No. 1 overall, they expect greatness. Immediate and sustained gratification is part of the job description. By using the most prized draft asset available, it is hefty bet on becoming the type of player that elevates and amplifies everyone around him. He’s going to be someone that etches himself into record books. After a reasonable amount of time has passed, because of what he’s accomplished between the painted lines, he’ll never have to pay for a drink or dinner or wait for a table in his city for the rest of his waking life. No player has more of a burden of expectations from the get-go than the No. 1 overall quarterback; the defining story of a draft.
When such a player ends up flaming out, history is seldom kind. Even in retrospect, there’s always a subtle element of derision and frustration over what could’ve been, what should’ve been, but never was. When it’s clear the player will provide no assurances of a brighter future with their arm and legs, there’s no grey area in the verdict on their career. Whatever the justification for their shortcoming is, be it immense pressure, an overestimation of aptitude, or poor support, it doesn’t matter. They’re permitted to only be viewed as a colossal bust who never belonged in the first place; think along the lines of the Ryan Leaf’s, Tim Couch’s, Jeff George’s, and Jamarcus Russel’s of the world. Those who end up being as revered as a John Elway or Peyton Manning are unicorns.
Save the franchise, morph into a cultural touchstone. Live among mere mortals as a deity that happens to throw oblong balls into precise, tight spaces. Continue the franchise’s perpetual agony, regardless of whether you were culpable, and transform into a social pariah. Be prepared to be ostracized from public view.
There’s no in-between. Except for Alex Smith.
Every rule and guideline has an exception. A caveat hidden in the margins that can’t be generalized. Smith is the walking and breathing case when it comes to the usual vexing top quarterback. He’s the rare hefty investment who had his leash extended out beyond sane means in San Francisco and somehow didn’t waste anyone’s time in the process.
When the game at this level finally crystallized in his mind, he didn’t reach the potential Scott McCloughan once saw in him. And that was, objectively, fine. By virtue of his propensity to run a West Coast offense without crashing and burning for contenders in both San Francisco and Kansas City, Smith had made it. He wasn’t going to win games through sheer, unmatched brilliance, but he wasn’t going to lose them. Thanks to a quality infrastructure around his limitations, Smith’s late-career 49ers and Chiefs were always factors in the championship picture. Count them out at your own risk, have deep regret later.
Smith was serviceable. He was accountable. He was reliable.
Familiarity breeds respect to the Bears. Smith’s familiarity with Matt Nagy, combined with what the Bears already have waiting in their stable, will likely make him the most attractive temporary (emphasis: temporary) option at quarterback. That’s for both the powers that be in Halas Hall, and veterans seeking to squeeze out one last contending opportunity. The best of every world for every embedded party.
When Alex Smith last worked with Matt Nagy in 2017 with the Chiefs, he enjoyed the chief statistical season of his career. A 104.7 passer rating. Over 4,000 yards passing. That while not impressive in itself for many in a passing league, was a milestone for a notorious game manager like Smith. The highest average yards an attempt (8.6) of any NFL quarterback. Yes, higher than the likes of legends such as Tom Brady (8.4) and Drew Brees (8.3). Kansas City hummed along to the fourth-ranked offense in DVOA, the fifth-ranked attack in total yards, and a sixth place mark in points scored. All with Smith at the helm. All with Nagy (at least for the last six games of the season) designing and calling plays. Tiny miracles can happen.
It’s not difficult to imagine what the duo could accomplish in Chicago under ideal circumstances. It’s not difficult to imagine the collective output of Allen Robinson, Anthony Miller, and David Montgomery flourishing with Smith and Nagy at the forefront. Proven results from an experienced veteran and a coach he’s close to. Many transitions and installations are far rockier than this presentation.
What is difficult to imagine is what physical state Smith should find himself in by the first kickoff come September. Better yet, what shape will he be in by the end of July for training camp? Any Chicago investment in Smith means considering whether he can still handle the rigors of such a violent game.
When Smith was last seen on a football field in late 2018, he had to be carted off. Stating he was merely carted off doesn’t do the pain he suffered proper justice. Smith had the misfortune of suffering one of the more visceral leg injuries in modern NFL history. His subsequent recovery was an uneven ride full of complications in the form of multiple ensuing surgeries (17, to be exact) and a rigid metal fixator. There was significant doubt as to whether he would even be able to walk in the near future. Participating in a sport where 250-pound warriors are bearing down on him, seeking blood every five minutes, was nary a thought.
The beauty of having such a public platform in the NFL is the chance to control your narrative on a whim. Smith himself, while still having quite a few hurdles to clear, recently put questions concerning his playing days to bed. He plans on sticking around, and for awhile. Despite everything he’s been forced to endure, his objective is to strap the pads on and helmet up as long as possible.
“Without a doubt, yeah. Still continuing to push this as far as it goes,” Smith said. “I still have dreams of getting back to where I was and getting back out there. This has been, obviously, a crazy ride with a lot of unforeseen turns, but without a doubt that’s still my goal.”
There’s no timeline for Smith’s full recovery. The magnitude of the injury he suffered infamously stopped the career of another passer, Joe Theismann, in its tracks. Whatever precedent there is for playing in the NFL again after this kind of trauma, Smith is setting it alone. Undergoing football motions again this past November might be foreshadowing of someone beating the odds. It also might mean nothing, as Smith ends up not being prepared to take snaps by the start of the 2020 campaign.
Health is the main detractor for Smith’s continued NFL presence. But if he’s able-bodied, there’s no question the Bears should pursue the veteran’s services. A small flier of a trade for a quarterback on a team-unfriendly contract (at least for incumbent Washington) is worth reaping the benefits for. It’s worth reuniting him and Nagy. It’s worth seeing what another ready-made team can accomplish with an experienced, savvy quarterback. The Bears seem to agree.
The onus is on Smith to fulfill his part of the bargain. If his tumultuous journey to this stage is any indication, he won’t fall short.
Robert abstains from picking any of the doors available to the Bears. As long as he gets to decide which Price Is Right, that’s what counts.
Follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski. You can’t take a picture of this, it’s already gone.