A Forty-Niner redemption and Alex Smith resurrection
San Francisco 36 New Orleans 32
Alex Smith flourished in Urban Meyer’s up-tempo spread offense at Utah. In 2004, Smith was a finalist for the Heisman. It all went downhill from there. Until 2011 and new coach Jim Harbaugh.
The San Francisco 49ers, with the first overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft chose Smith. The once-proud organization had been in free-fall. Things had been unravelling since owner Eddie DeBartolo, Jr. pled guilty to a felony charge. Control was given to DeBartolo’s sister and her husband. The degradation of the front office filtered down to the field. Losing 11 of the last 12 games in 1999 was the ultimate implosion. They made a brief playoff appearance in 2002 (which included a comeback from a 24-point deficit to defeat the Giants by a point), but had to wait 10 more years to make it back to NFL relevance.
When Alex Smith showed up to 49ers camp in 2005, San Francisco had landed in the bottom: the 2004 season ended at 2-and-12. The coach and GM had both been fired. Mike Nolan, son of a former 49ers head coach was brought in to right the ship. It was Nolan that chose Smith in the first round over Cal’s Aaron Rogers.
After three sub-par seasons playing for Nolan, a defensive-oriented coach, Smith had lost the faith of the front office, coaches, and fans. Cris Collinsworth noted on an NFL Network broadcast in 2006 that Smith had been the wrong pick, and wasn’t close to the quality of rookies Jay Cutler, Matt Leinart, and Vince Young. Smith then injured his throwing shoulder in 2007. He lost his starting job for the next season, and was later diagnosed as having a broken bone in that shoulder. The 49ers front office announced it should be expected that Smith would be released before the 2009 season.
After more than a full season on the injured-reserve list, the club asked Smith to renegotiate his contract. He agreed, took a pay cut, and was willing to compete for his starting job under new coach Mike Singletary. There were ups and there were downs, mostly downs. That is, until the head coach of the college team just a few miles south on U.S. 101 decided to resign and become yet another 49er head coach.
Jim Harbaugh hired a new offensive coordinator, the seventh in Alex Smith’s seven seasons. But it must have felt as if somebody opened a window and let the fresh air into Alex Smith’s troubled mind. Harbaugh was the first offensive-minded head coach of the Niners since the arrival of Smith. Harbaugh knew the position and the mind of a successful quarterback. He had been a standout quarterback in college and the NFL. The new head coach let it be known from day one that Alex Smith was his man. And when the league lockout happened, Smith organized the players for workouts so that Harbaugh’s new offense could be installed.
That system was pure gold for the red-and-gold club as well as for Smith. It was designed to put Smith into positions for success. Mostly short passes to the flats, a reliance on the running game, and a knowledge that a suffocating defense and effective special teams could keep it close against practically everybody.
It worked better than the most optimistic dreamer could have imagined, at least anybody outside of Smith and his coaches. There were career highs in season completion percentage, QB rating, and yards passing (over 3,000), as well as a notable career low in interceptions (5). It also led to the 49ers’ first winning season and playoff appearance since 2002, and the most wins since 1997. It led to a picture-perfect football afternoon on Saturday in San Francisco.
By the time the fourth quarter rolled around, it had been a fairly typical game for the 2011 49ers — terrific special teams, dominant defense, a +4 turnover ratio, and Alex Smith having a solid, yet far from spectacular game. Then came The Run. And then came The Pass.
After leading the entire game, the 49ers finally succombed to NFL super quarterback Drew Brees when he hit that little bowling-ball named Sproles for a 44-yard TD pass to forge the Saints ahead by a point, 24-23. There were only four minutes left in the game. The Niners weren’t supposed to win anyway. And they were starting their next drive from their own 12 yard line. Smith surprised most when he threw a perfectly timed pass down the left sideline to the streaking tight end Vernon Davis for a 37-yard gain. Could Alex Smith lead his team on a come-from-behind-final-minutes-playoff-game-winning drive?
Later, twelve men in the huddle made it third and nine. So it was inevitable that Smith would position his team for a go-ahead field goal attempt. Perhaps the Saints didn’t know that Alex Smith had run a 4.7-second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine in 2005. He took the snap in the shotgun, tucked the ball and headed full speed around the left end. Smith kept going, for more than 20 yards, evading a couple of defenders while tightroping it a bit into the end zone. It was a play that surely would finally put Smith into the hearts of all 49er faithful.
That is, until Brees and the Saints struck again, quickly, with less than two minutes remaining to put New Orleans up by three with a little over a minute left.
But after hitting Vernon Davis again on a 47-yard completion over the middle, Smith found himself well within range for a game-tying field goal. After a quick spike of the ball to stop the clock at 0:14, it would surely come down to an overtime after a 37-yard field goal.
Except that Jim Harbaugh believes in Alex Smith. One more play to take the overtime out of the equation. Smith could throw it away in case nobody was wide open. Nobody was. But Smith threw a bullet into coverage at the goal line where, once again, Vernon Davis held on while taking a vicious hit.
Harbaugh believed. Perhaps Smith always did.