If you were trying to accomplish something you love, and had worked extremely hard, over a long period of time – and finally got it – imagine how thrilled you would be. Then you got hurt and the person who wasn’t quite as good as you took over. While you’re working to get back in tiptop shape, your “understudy” is performing really well. So much so that your group wins. Without you. In the field in which you work, people outside of it have short memories. They loved you when you were doing well but criticized you when you weren’t, especially when your company wasn’t winning.
Answer honestly, are you be hoping the “next guy in line” 1) does great, 2) does just well enough so that your team wins, 3) flops, but somehow your team wins or 4) does horribly, independent of whether the team wins or loses? That is the test of every first teamer who lost his job because of injury.
It happened to the San Francisco 49ers starting quarterback Alex Smith. Keep in mind that Smith was the overall #1 pick in the 2005 NFL draft. You can’t get drafted any higher and the expectations mirror your selection, only more so. Smith had to learn the offensive philosophy from the offensive coordinator because in the pros the head coach really coaches the coaches. The assistant coaches coach their respective position players, with the coordinator in charge of the offense or defense. If that sounds a little complicated, consider that Alex Smith had five different offensive coordinators in his first five years.
The NFL is the college game on steroids. Everyone is bigger, stronger, faster. The defensive coordinator is trying to make the game so difficult for the opposing QB – especially a young one – and the game has become so sophisticated that not only do teams change defenses, e.g. from a 3-4 to a 4-3, they change defensive looks within the same defense. Worse yet, players have become so specialized that there are third down and long defensive linemen, nickel backs and guys who function so much better in one blitz package over another, their PT is limited to just such situations. It’s nearly impossible for an inexperienced QB to succeed early in a career. Ask Peyton Manning.
Alex Smith did not succeed. Some fans didn’t think he was the guy to lead the 49ers back to championship contenders – and they were the ones who liked Smith. The others ridiculed him – and the club – for wasting a #1 pick on someone so incompetent. In walked Jim Harbaugh who, when asked what college QBs he’d like to get for his new team said he thought Alex Smith would be fine. The fans thought he as kidding. Maybe he was but it was the beginning of the Harbaugh-Smith-49er fans love affair.
Then Smith went down with a concussion. It wasn’t diagnosed immediately. When Smith was not cleared, Harbaugh had to go to the bench for a substitute. He chose a second year QB, Colin Kaepernick. Wouldn’t you know it? Kaepernick led the Niners to victory. After the win, Smith was asked about how he felt watching his backup play?
Remember the hypothetical question an four choices at the beginning of this blog? Here was Alex Smith’s reply: “If you can’t be happy for your teammate’s success you’re playing the wrong sport. Go play tennis or golf or something … That doesn’t belong in team sports. It’s the quarterback position. It gets a lot of attention. We’re going to get talked about.”
Would that have been how you felt? The difference between players who are legitimately happy for the team, regardless if the teammate they’re competing with outplays them, as opposed to those who want the team to win – but only if they’re the major part of it – is probably going to determine whether or not your team will win or lose.
During my first year of coaching, in the early 1970s, we were losing and I had a kid who wanted to ask me a question. After I said of course, he kind of stammered, but went on “Well, I want to know why I’m not playing more. Mark is ahead of me and he can’t shoot, can’t pass, can’t dribble (“handle” hadn’t made it’s entrance into the hoops vocabulary yet) and can’t rebound.”
I looked at him and said, “I completely agree with you. Mark isn’t a good shooter, passer, dribbler or rebounder. But he does all of them better than you!” This led to a mantra we would use throughout the rest of the season:
“Just because someone else is doing poorly doesn’t mean you’re doing well.”
P.S. Harbaugh named Kaepernick the starter for the Niners’ next game. Will Smith continue taking the high road? My money’s on him – after all he’s endured.