Troy Aikman made it very clear during Sunday’s 49ers/Saints game that he didn’t think it was fair that Alex Smith lost his job as a starting quarterback. “He didn’t do anything to lose it,” he said. This is wrong. What Alex Smith did to lose his job is be worse than Colin Kaepernick at playing quarterback. It is simple in its simplicity. It is sports at its core. If you are not good enough, you will be replaced.
The rise of advanced analytics has shown us how well sports play out this equation. Even before Bill James, sports did a good job of sorting who was best, because the bulk of results. The only thing that really stood in its way was a bunch of -isms, and only in baseball did it really stick beyond those. But in all sports, if you can play, you can play, and that’s what they make good movies about. The old quarterback is always good enough to stick around, and the young one is just good enough to sneak past him, if only for a second act. The reason this formula works is that the story can always go one of two ways. In this story, it’s obvious that Kaepernick is the better player, and Jim Harbaugh is stretching this out as long as he can to iron out Smith’s anger. It’s a master class in jerk that we would have seen eleven years ago had Drew Bledsoe not gotten injured in week two.
It seems like a fait accompli that Brady would have started for the Patriots eventually, and I’m pretty sure he would have started in the regular season whether or not Drew Bledsoe got hurt early on. Drew was something of a lock to get hurt eventually, given that he couldn’t move around whatsoever, but the fact he got hurt when he did made it a simple decision for Bill Belichick, who loved Brady anyway. Bledsoe was probably considered the least likely Boston athlete to go anywhere at the time this happened, which is the strange part, now. Bledsoe was the quarterback we had bet on, and Brady was the casual $1 bet we tossed off and won the house with. That’s not how it looked at Patriots camp, where the consensus was that Brady was better. That’s what’s been happening in San Francisco all season. He is, Brady was, and Tim Tebow isn’t, someone who just wins games. This does mean that they’re supermen, but put good enough quarterbacks on good teams and good things happen. The reason people were angry at the Tebow furor was that Tebow clearly wasn’t these guys, and the script was being flipped: The team had been moribund before he played, but he had led them to victory, they said.
It is difficult to forget:
“Unleash.” Tim Tebow wouldn’t chase a squirrel eating his steak, but he would run a football through Asante Samuel, and God bless him for it. Drew Bledsoe was a walking tree, but he was our walking tree. Alex Smith can move fine, but he’s no Colin Kaepernick. Tom Brady had the best footwork in the league before the injury, after which he has relied on his famous duck move. The key here for all of these replacements is motion. The people who moved better got the jobs. One of these is Tom Brady, one of these at the start of his ascent, and the other is Tim Tebow, who was just lucky. None of them are Alex Smith. For all the imbalance in the player/league relationship on the league side, the team owes the player nothing beyond what’s in the contract. Smith and Bledsoe had the same draft position, wear the same number and went to college in a similar part of the country. Smith’s a little faster, noodlier arm, a tortured history instead of a tony one. They both lost out, and it’s permanent. The Colin Kaepernick story—the Tom Brady story with a bi-racial, tattooed rocket with legs—is the 2001 story remixed, in just about every way. Belichick is from New England, Harbaugh is from San Francisco. Belichick is a dick, Harbaugh is a west coast dick; you do or do not know the type, because I may have just made it up. The defenses range from great, in the Patriots’ case, to merely amazing in the 49ers’ case. The Niners have their Frank Gore; the Patriots had Tedy Bruschi. But those are small matters. The star of the show is Kaerpernick, and when the show is over, we’ll feel like he was the show all along. He’s inspiring, and his story is inspiring and taking place in real time.
The stories of the losers? Those don’t come until later. The stories of those who no longer have it, the good ones, the moment the know it—we call those stories moving. The Alex Smith story does not move me. The Drew Bledsoe story didn’t even move me, and he was my favorite player ever by 100 nautical miles. The guy who can win should play next. It is truly, as they say, all in the game.