Before starting this series, first a disclaimer. Free agency is usually the most over hyped aspect of the NFL offseason – at least if you subscribe to the following:
1. If these free agents are such good players, then why did their teams allow them to become free agents?
2. Or, with the availability of more cap room and cap tags, it's pretty rare to find a top-notch player fully available for the taking.
3. As such, most NFL free agents are either trying to cash in on either their first or last big money contract. Again, it's worth asking why the player's original team weren't the ones to provide such a deal and naturally in such a situation, the idea of player motivation arises.
And of course around these parts, the Browns haven't been active participants in free agency for a few years. Either because of an inability to attract top talent or an unwillingness to spend top money, the Browns have eschewed the process in favor of building through the draft. As for 2013, it's unclear whether the team's new management will continue this approach. If you follow the logic of Joe Banner serving as the team's fiscal arbitrator, then it's hard to envision the Browns going on a shopping spree.
In the end, it's likely that most Browns' fans will again feel the sting of disappointment that has become a regular March feature. Seemingly every year, Browns' fans psyche themselves up for a free agency extravaganza that never comes. While names such as Nnmadi Asomugha, Albert Haynesworth, Mario Williams and Adalius Thomas ultimately reveal themselves to be fool's gold, perhaps it's the appearance of the Browns not doing anything to improve the team that is most disappointing.
Yet, when you compare the fortunes of the league's most consistent winners and losers, it's easy to note how little of an impact free agency actually has. The best NFL teams build through the draft and sign their top players to contract extensions well before they can reach the free agency market. The rest of the league's teams are the ones who chase free agents.
But, in an effort to play along – I've assembled what I feel is a roster of free agents – all of whom possess two common traits.* First, they are free agents and second, we've all heard of them.
-Offers several years of NFL experience.
-Even the dimmest of football reporters know his name.
-Played under Norv Turner for one season.
-Has won a playoff game.
-Has already made a ton of NFL money.
-Doesn't stay healthy.
-Was benched en route to a sure playoff run.
-Existed before Jim Harbaugh came to the NFL.
The current prospect of Alex Smith as a top quarterback target is either the result of some crafty public relations work or accounts for the sheer stupidity of both football fans and executives. Had this discussion taken place two years ago, the idea of Smith serving as anything more than a backup quarterback would be pointless. Smith's faltering career – one filled by injury and erratic play framed within the expectations of being the top overall draft pick – was life-flighted by Jim Harbaugh.
Based solely on numbers, here's a stark reminder of just where Smith was pre-Harbaugh:
Before Jim Harbaugh
2005 – 2-5 Record, 50.9 Completion %, 875 Yards, 1 TD, 11 Int, 29 Sacks
2006 – 7-9 Record, 59.1 Completion %, 2890 Yards, 16 TD, 16 Int, 35 Sacks
2007 – 2-5 Record, 48.7 Completion %, 914 Yards, 2 TD, 4 Int, 17 Sacks
2008 – Did Not Play
2009 – 5-5 Record, 60.5 Completion %, 2350 Yards, 18 TD, 12 Int, 22 Sacks
2010 – 3-7 Record, 59.6 Completion %, 2370 Yards, 14 TD, 10 Int, 25 Sacks
-To note, 2006 was the magical year that Smith was under Norv Turner's tutelage.
These are sobering numbers, particularly in the area of actual games played. Smith suffered a series of injuries and also was benched for the likes of Shaun Hill, J.T. O'Sullivan and Troy Smith – a trend that continued in 2012. Naturally, it's easy to point to the level of talent that surrounded Smith and of course, the 49ers suffered through the ineptitude of Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary's coaching reigns.
For another comparison, it's interesting to stack up Smith's early career with that of another former first overall draft pick.
Like Couch, Smith played for a franchise that burned through Head Coaches and coordinators before landing Harbaugh. Smith's line of offensive coordinators included Mike McCarthy, Turner, Ted Tollner and Mike Martz before Greg Roman arrived in 2011. Certainly, the endless transitions didn't help Smith's overall development – nor did the 49ers' continual botching of the draft.
In a very weird sense, it's almost as if Smith has always been a Browns' quarterback. The comparisons are kind of eerie.
Anyway, in all fairness, Smith morphed into an efficient quarterback under Harbaugh.
After Jim Harbaugh
2011 – 13-3 Record, 61.3 Completion %, 3144 Yards, 17 TD, 5 Int, 44 Sacks
2012 – 6-2-1 Record, 70.2 Completion %, 1737 Yards, 13 TD, 5 Int, 24 Sacks
It's arguable, but Harbaugh is probably among the league's top quarterback developers – at least if two seasons' worth of evidence is enough proof. Certainly in terms of putting his quarterbacks into positions to succeed, Harbaugh and Roman crafted an offense that fit Smith's talents and/or didn't expose his weaknesses. In 2011 – when he posted an impressive 14-4 overall record – Smith threw more than 30 passes in exactly half of his games – a mark of a truly balanced offense.
Yet, the underlying truth regarding Smith is that he was put into the absolute best situation to succeed, yet Harbaugh continued to try to find a replacement. First by drafting Colin Kaepernick, then chasing Peyton Manning, then in the ultimate sign of not having faith, Harbaugh gambled on a sure playoff run to bench Smith in favor of the untested Kaepernick.
Or, let's be more succinct. Smith has already been given the absolute best situation an NFL quarterback can ask for: terrific coaching, an offensive system that emphasized running and smart passing, excellent defense and a weak division. Yet, Smith was dumped. And now the veteran quarterback will likely NEVER enter a better situation in the NFL – at least in terms of coaching and surrounding talent. If Smith's history is anything to measure his future, then it's very likely he will struggle on a team with lesser talent.
And while Smith's last two seasons have been productive, it's interesting to think that his career resurrection has been essentially based on a limited amount of throws. In a league designed to reward teams who pass, Smith has made a name for himself by playing the dated role of the "complementary quarterback", or "game manager" if you're into dumb cliches. Smith has won a lot of games by going against the league trend of throwing a lot of passes.
Smith has been the recipient of a great deal of hype – no doubt highlighted by the 49ers' Super Bowl exposure. As is often the case, this hype overshadows Smith's actual talents as an NFL quarterback. Smith is a solid veteran quarterback – one who can run a team and make some plays. However, Smith only succeeded on a larger scale when the situation around him was nearly perfect. In coming to a team that is anything but, it's hard to envision Smith reaching similar heights.
According to this rationale, Smith would make for a solid free agent pickup for a team needing a bridge quarterback – but wouldn't be expected to do much more or to command a huge sum of money. Of course, given his name and exposure, Smith carries a big price tag and in his current unique case, the 49ers could probably extract a first or second round draft pick from a QB-desperate team. Based on his history, Smith would make for a very expensive gamble.
For another comparison, here are some other quarterback alternatives:
A case could be made that Moore is nearly the equal of Smith – and would represent a greater value to a team like the Browns. Of course, Moore can't claim a similar "name" recognition – which seems to be an oddly vital aspect of free agency. As for the other quarterbacks, it's a less than inspiring group.
However, if you are Bill Belichick and you know that Mike Lombardi is dying to trade with you, why would the Patriots not quickly re-sign Brian Hoyer and wait for the Browns to unload a third-round draft pick?
Then again, there's that whole idea of the Browns actually finding a franchise quarterback. Wouldn't it be great to avoid sad debates like whether Alex Smith or Matt Moore is a better option?
*Once again, Alex Smith is not a free agent – in case you are an unpaid Internet fact checker or just a D-bag who likes to make obvious corrections.
**I fully understand that Alex Smith is not a free agent. However, for the purposes of this exercise, let's just assume that he is.