I think we all can agree that Alex Smith has come of age this season. In the best game of his turbulent seven-year career, the man who played his college ball in Utah and never seemed to bring his helmet with him to the NFL, has leapfrogged every expectation thrown at him this season under first-year coach Jim Harbaugh. Smith provided San Francisco 49ers fans with an unbelievable performance to admire for years to come, besting the highly touted New Orleans Saints and their MVP-candidate quarterback Drew Brees. In the 49ers’ 36-32 win Saturday, Smith was nothing short of phenomenal (24-of-42 passing for 299 yards and three touchdowns). And while it was really a complete game for the 49ers, with the team being carried for three quarters by the defense, Smith really turned it up a notch in the fourth quarter as the offense carried the team. And it’s because of his late game heroics that I’m so enamored with the guy I openly said should be out of football — both here on this site and in my columns for The Union.
49ers linebacker Larry Grant, who I attended school with, expressed that the mood of San Franciscans has changed in regard to Smith, something I think has occurred nationally too.
“Being a San Francisco guy, I’ve seen the ups and downs in the past with Alex Smith,” Grant said. “Not only am I, but the city of San Francisco is proud of what happened. His success is leading us to the next level each week.”
A few plays on offense stand out to me and I think they should be noted here:
1) I’ve been critical of Smith because of his seeming lack of accuracy, penchant for tunnel vision, and general flappableness under duress. Not on Saturday. Not in the red zone. In the first quarter, on a patented West Coast slant, Smith hit Michael Crabtree in stride for a 4-yard touchdown to give the 49ers a 14-0 lead, erasing any doubts about his ability to pull the trigger and be a gunslinger with the best of them. I think I tweeted at the time it was a big boy throw. Better than the 49-yard touchdown he threw to Vernon Davis to go up 7-0 moments ago. It put the Saints on their heels and made Brees antsy, throwing multiple times into coverage. That was great for an opportunistic defense.
2) On what seemed like the 49ers’ last drive, their last chance to tie or win the game, on 3rd-and-7 with a little more than two minutes to go, Smith broke out left on a bootleg with tackle Joe Staley sprinting in front of him. Simultaneously, the realization of both talents came to fruition on a national stage. Staley, the veteran tackle and leader on the 49ers’ offensive line, performed one of the best blocks of his career and Smith, looking every bit the athletic quarterback he was touted in 2005, toed the sideline en route to a 28-yard touchdown. With the 49ers’ defense, the thinking was that the Saints were toast. Not so fast …
3) After giving up an unforgivable 66-yard touchdown to Jimmy Graham, the 49ers were faced with another long drive to win the game, with 1:32 left to do it. Smith, still with his big boy shorts on, made two not-so quick passes to Frank Gore to get the 49ers going. But it’s what he did on the fourth play of the drive that picked up the chins of the fans at Candelstick Park and those watching around the world. On 2nd-and-10, Smith threw a dart to Davis over the middle of the field with tight coverage on him. Davis turned it up field, sprinting for a 47-yard gain. Again, the old Alex wouldn’t have made that throw. He would have been paralyzed by the fear of making a mistake in that situation. But Harbaugh has him brooding with confidence, rightfully so, and he was able to show the world again that he was a quarterback that belongs.
4) With 14 seconds on the clock, and 49ers’ season seemingly on the brink, Smith stepped into another echelon of quarterbacks in San Francisco lore. Joe Montana did it. Steve Young did it. Now Alex Smith has done it. Looking for Davis again over the middle, Smith connects with the burly tight end on a laser of a pass for a 14-yard touchdown, one in which if it wasn’t as timely or as on target, would’ve likely been an interception. Even more phenomenal, Davis took his route, a post, behind Saints linebacker Scott Shanle in zone coverage and in front of Saints safety Roman Harper who was sitting two yards in the end zone. He had to bulldoze his way over the safety for the score. But it was small window of opportunity that amazed me. The possibility and probability of success on a throw like that must be very, very small. It was a Brett Favre throw. It didn’t make much sense, but it won the game. And with it, it won over more than few Smith detractors, myself included.
I could go on and on about this game. I could nitpick how the defense almost gave it away after setting a physical tone. I could look at five other Smith throws that I don’t think he would’ve made a year ago. I could go in length on the ballsy call by Harbaugh on Smith’s touchdown run. But the unrelenting sentiment is that this team, and in particular Smith, are overachieving underdogs. And despite being counted out, both in his career and in these playoffs, Smith has proven everyone wrong by leading the 49ers on this remarkable journey to the NFC Championship. The win against the Saints has been billed as an instant classic. Vernon Davis has said to call his touchdown “The Grab,” following in the footsteps of Montana’s “The Catch” and Young’s “The Catch II.” (On Twitter and Facebook, I called it The Catch III. I’ll defer to Vernon on this.) It can only get better for the 49ers. And certainly, if the season were to end on Sunday against the New York Giants, the overwhelming feeling now is that Alex Smith is the 49ers’ quarterback going forward. He has earned it.