Alex Smith. Really? Really
Beleaguered, battered and booed for much of his career, the former No. 1 pick did the unthinkable, outdueling Drew Brees in a postseason epic to lead San Francisco to within one game of the Super Bowl
When one of the greatest playoff games in NFL history was over last Saturday on a spectacular sun-soaked afternoon in San Francisco, Doug Smith greeted his son Alex in the parking lot with a smile, a hug and a very good question: "Do you [earn] two fourth-quarter comebacks for that?"
Considering everything Smith has been through since being the No. 1 pick out of Utah in 2005—including three coaches, seven offensive coordinators, at least two shoulder surgeries and countless pronouncements that he was at best a game manager and at worst a total bust—the 49ers' quarterback deserved that credit and much more after pulling out a thrilling 36--32 victory over the favored Saints in Candlestick Park. But typical of his style both off the field and in the pocket, the bearded, blue-eyed Californian handled the question with the same cool he showed against New Orleans's blitz packages.
"Yeah, right," Smith said with a chuckle.
Outside the San Francisco locker room and his own family, no one envisioned a scenario in which Smith would go toe-to-toe with Drew Brees and walk away victorious. Brees had just broken Dan Marino's 27-year-old record for passing yards in a season, with 5,476, and set a new mark for completion percentage, at 71.2. He threw 46 touchdown passes, fourth most all time, and directed an offense that had put up at least 42 points in four straight games. In his previous five playoff games, Brees had thrown for 13 scores and no interceptions, and had won a Super Bowl.
Smith, by contrast, was making his first postseason appearance; four months earlier he was booed at Candlestick, where many of the Niners' faithful believed his welcome had worn out years earlier. The Saints, like most opponents, thought so little of Smith's passing that they forced the ball into his hands by loading up against the run. He made them pay early with two first-quarter touchdown passes (the second coming after a Brees interception), but the tenor of the game changed as the Saints battled back. With just over four minutes to play they took their first lead, 24--23, on a 44-yard catch-and-run by Darren Sproles.
A stadium that rocked earlier in the day was suddenly still, as if fans were saying to themselves: Really? Alex Smith is going to rally us?
In fact, Smith rallied the Niners twice, leading consecutive touchdown drives of 80 and 85 yards in less than two minutes each. He capped the first with a 28-yard naked bootleg around left end on third-and-eight, during which he grinned through his face mask well before reaching the end zone. And after Brees took just four plays to go 88 yards and regain the lead, 32--29, on a 66-yard throw to tight end Jimmy Graham, Smith—in front of many of the same fans who once longed for his departure—returned to the huddle at his own 15-yard line with 1:32 left.
He began slowly, with two short passes to running back Frank Gore, then found Vernon Davis for 47 yards. Another short pass to Gore put the ball at the Saints' 20, where Smith spiked it to stop the clock at 0:14. Suddenly, Candlestick swayed again. Three points were all but assured: David Akers kicked a league-record 44 field goals this season, hitting 31 of 32 inside 40 yards.
With a timeout left, the 49ers didn't need to take chances. They could run the ball, send a safe pass into the flat or try a fade into the corner. But when you have a QB whom you trust to win games—not simply manage them—you do what offensive coordinator Greg Roman did and dial up a play that quarterbacks coach Geep Chryst had given him earlier in the week.
A former assistant with the Panthers, Chryst had faced the Saints twice a year in the NFC South for five seasons. One tip he took from those matchups was that safety Roman Harper liked to settle two yards behind the goal line on red zone pass plays. So San Francisco slotted Davis to the left side and had him run vertically before cutting sharply to the middle, in front of Harper. There was nothing safe about the call, because a linebacker could step into the passing lane or Harper could break tendency and sit closer to the goal line. A gnat would have had a hard time fitting through the window, let alone a football.
But Smith took the snap from the shotgun, set his feet and whistled a pass to Davis, who would score the game's first and last touchdowns. As teammates mobbed him in the end zone, Davis—who like Smith was playing in his first postseason game—wept as if witnessing the birth of his child. In truth a sellout crowd and a national TV audience had witnessed the rebirth of a franchise that won five Super Bowls in the 1980s and '90s and went a record 16 straight years with at least 10 wins. That it was Smith making the delivery was fitting to his teammates and coaches.
"He deserved to win," said Roman, who was Jim Harbaugh's coordinator at Stanford and came to the Niners last January when Harbaugh was hired as coach. "When I met with [Smith] after being hired, you could see how badly he wanted it. He had been through so much here but didn't want to turn and run. He wanted to stay and fight. It said so much about him that I told myself, I want to help make him successful."
If it had been up to Smith's family and friends, Saturday never would have happened. Pam and Doug Smith, who live in the San Diego area, have attended each of their son's games since he entered the league. They have seen the pain his body has endured and the mental anguish of his being roundly booed. They listened as one coach, Mike Nolan, questioned Smith's physical toughness, and another, Mike Singletary, doubted his leadership.
After concluding 2010 with a 38--7 win over the Cardinals, Alex and his wife, Elizabeth, joined Pam, Doug and two friends for dinner. Smith was set to become a free agent, and the talk was about what he should do next. All agreed on one thing: He should leave San Francisco. The group even raised glasses and made a toast: "To moving on."
"Everybody who knew him was trying to get him to move on," Pam says. "When we talked to him, it was, 'Alex, you've given it your all here. You can move on with your head held high.'"
Smith, though, wanted to subtract emotion from his decision. Singletary had been fired a week before the finale, and when Harbaugh was lured from Stanford 12 days later, Smith was intrigued. After meeting with the new coach, a 1987 first-round pick of the Bears who spent 15 years in the NFL, Smith was sold—he signed a one-year, $5 million deal—even if his family still had reservations.
At one point in late January, Smith left his cellphone at the team's facility. Harbaugh wanted to tell him but didn't know how to reach the quarterback. So he called Smith's parents to see if they had a cell number for Smith's wife. The conversation did not go as Harbaugh envisioned. "I told his dad, 'I really want Alex here. This could be his fresh start,' " Harbaugh says. "That was met with crickets. You could hear the chirping on the other end of the phone."
Harbaugh laughed before adding: "I felt for them, I really did. I totally understood that this would maybe be the last place they would want their son. It's spectacular how things have transpired."
The 49ers, who had not won more than eight games in a season since 2002, are 14--3 and hosting the Giants in the NFC Championship Game at Candlestick on Sunday. Along the way Smith has outdueled Ben Roethlisberger, Matthew Stafford, Eli Manning and, yes, Brees. After a road game midway through the season, Harbaugh met Smith's mother for the first time. With unblinking eyes he told her that Alex is the toughest player he has ever coached. As a coach's son and a quarterback who wasn't afraid to mix it up during his playing career, Harbaugh doesn't toss around such accolades loosely.
"He's had shoulder injuries, taken some big hits, and he just keeps on playing," says Harbaugh. "He went through some hideous treatment, not only thrown under the bus by the fan base but also by the team and the so-called experts who said some vile things about him. He's stoic about it, and he doesn't respond, doesn't flinch. But he thinks about it because it hurt. Still, he forges on."
The 49ers' offense revolves around its running game, defense and special teams. Smith had only 445 pass attempts this season, 212 fewer than Brees. Yet to focus on his stats is to miss his cool under pressure. In 2011, Smith has come through in big moments. At Cincinnati, the Niners trailed 6--3 with nine minutes to go. Smith calmly completed 4 of 5 passes for 48 yards on a 10-play, 72-yard drive for the decisive score. The following week at Philadelphia the 49ers trailed 23--3 early in the third quarter. On consecutive possessions Smith went 3 of 3 for 78 yards and a touchdown and 3 of 3 for 62 and a score, and San Francisco won 24--23 with a late touchdown run by Gore. Two weeks later at Detroit, the Niners trailed 19--15 and faced a fourth-and-goal from the six with 1:56 to play. Smith took the snap, set his feet and fired a dart into the chest of tight end Delanie Walker as he was crossing the goal line. But in the seven years since San Francisco drafted him, no comeback was more momentous than the one Smith pulled off on Saturday.
As fans hooted and hollered and rocked the stadium after Smith's touchdown pass to Davis, his third TD throw of the day, Pam and Doug and a small group of family friends looked at one another through tear-filled eyes in a section behind the 49ers' bench. "It was very emotional," Pam would say that evening. "We were all going crazy, but in the back of our minds was everything Alex had been through over the years. All the talk that he can't carry the team or can't make the big plays. It's one thing to come back once in the final minutes against a team as good as the Saints and Drew Brees. But to do it twice? On that stage? With that type of pressure? There were truly tears of joy. The contrast with previous years was fresh in our minds."
When the family gathered after the game, another toast was in order—and moving on had new meaning. Smith and the 49ers were headed to the title game, the Super Bowl in their sights.
Niners' Smith stands tall above the rest in an instant classic
By Steve Wyche NFL.com
Published: Jan. 15, 2012 at 02:58 a.m. Updated: Jan. 15, 2012 at 06:40 p.m.
SAN FRANCISCO -- When Drew Brees and Jimmy Graham connected on a spectacular 66-yard touchdown pass that gave the Saints a three-point lead with 1:36 remaining, the prospect of Alex Smith -- Alex Smith of all people -- out-Breesing Brees and leading the 49ers 85 yards to trump playoff-tested and red-hot New Orleans seemed about as probable as a rookie head coach taking a routinely underachieving team to the NFC Championship Game.
It seemed so unlikely that the Saints, who beat Matt Ryan and Matthew Stafford twice and Cam Newton and Eli Manning during their nine-game winning streak, opted not to double- or triple-cover tight end Vernon Davis, the only receiver who really could beat them. Instead, they blitzed Smith, a total sign of disrespect. All New Orleans had to do was sit back and keep San Francisco in the middle of the turf to burn time off the clock. If the 49ers were lucky, they'd get a field goal to send the game into overtime.
Forget that Smith and the 49ers had come back on so many teams in the fourth quarter this season. He didn't have it in him -- no signature moment or drive. This game was a wrap.
Then Smith graduated.
One series after catching the Saints in a blitz and racing 28 yards down the left sideline to give the 49ers a stunning 29-25 lead with just more than 2 minutes left, Smith drove them 85 yards, connecting twice to Davis -- once on a 47-yard pitch-and-catch and again on the 14-yard touchdown that capped a stunning, game-sealing drive.
San Francisco 36, New Orleans 32. Epic.
Every quarterback worth his salt has a defining moment or a signature drive. Smith joined the club Saturday in his first playoff game.
This doesn't mean Smith and the 49ers will win the Super Bowl or that he'll ever be Brees or Brady. But it means he's not the liability so many of us believed he was. For much of the game, Smith was OK, nothing special -- especially with his receivers dropping so many passes he put on the mark.
Smith answered the bell at Money Time. We never knew if he could because he never had the chance. With different coordinators every season and a team that couldn't harness its talent, Smith and the 49ers were perennial pretenders.
In one season, under the guidance of rookie coach Jim Harbaugh, whose consistent approach players say they love, Smith and the 49ers sit a win away from the Super Bowl. It's a feel-good story that would have read well if it ended against the Saints. It didn't, and now Smith and the 49ers have the chance to dispel more doubt.
It's not fair, though, to look too far forward right now when so many special things took place in one incredible game that belongs in the lore of a 49ers franchise with a lengthy list of historic moments.
Cornerback Carlos Rogers showed why he was worthy of his Pro Bowl selection. Safety Donte Whitner changed the course of the game with a Ronnie Lott-style blow that sidelined Saints running back Pierre Thomas on the game-opening drive and set the tone for a defensive performance that New Orleans will feel for weeks to come.
Justin Smith, my God, Justin Smith. He is every bit worthy of the Defensive Player of the Year award for what he did during the season. What he did in this game, especially on the play where he reset Pro Bowl offensive tackle Jermon Bushrod into Brees' lap and then body-snatched Brees to the ground, might not be captured adequately by even the highest praise.
Then there was Davis, whose receiving numbers were down, but whose overall game was better than ever this season.
I asked Davis last week what he thought about Graham being the tight end most discussed in this game. Pride is a dangerous thing. Davis paused, then rattled off a series of compliments about Graham -- all worthy and seemingly sincere. But you could tell Davis wanted to prove that Graham, prototype tight end 5.0, wasn't going to upstage him.
Graham did his thing, but so did Davis -- seven catches, 180 yards, two touchdowns and tears of joy after grabbing the game-winner. Like Smith, this was Davis' first taste of the postseason. Through all of Smith's highs and lows, Davis was his most strident advocate. He believed. Maybe that's why when it was crunch time, he showed up in conjunction with Smith.
He held on to the ball and broke tackles and made plays when other players didn't.
This was a game during which the ballers balled and those not quite ready for prime time blinked.
Smith didn't blink, and now we know what he's capable of doing. There still will be doubt that maybe he got lucky or played the game of his life -- unable to parlay that into more. That could happen. But for a game, man what a game, he and the 49ers gave us something special.
Smith delivers a dagger to the heart
Posted on January 14, 2012 at 9:00 pm by San Francisco Chronicle in Quarterbacks
By Gwen Knapp
The heir to “The Catch” deserves a stronger nickname than any the 49ers could dream up on Saturday night.
“The Throw?” coach Jim Harbaugh ventured. “The Throw and Catch?”
“The Grab,” offered Vernon Davis, the man who pulled the game-winner into the end zone.
“The Catch 3?” left tackle Joe Staley suggested, showing his grasp of 49ers’ playoff lore by remembering Terrell Owens’ spectacular grab to beat Green Bay in 1999 as well as Dwight Clark’s soaring leap into history 30 years ago.
But the touchdown that brought down the exalted Saints 36-32 and sent the 49ers to the NFC Championship Game transcended football terminology. It was “The Dagger.”
Quarterback Alex Smith threw a 14-yard pass to Davis with 9 seconds left to finish a startling shootout with the Saints. The last 4 minutes and 2 seconds of the game saw four touchdowns, as the Saints went up, then the 49ers, then the Saints and then finally the home team – delivering an offensive show that more than matched the greatest finishes of its dynasty years.
“We move on, and we move on in spectacular fashion,” Harbaugh said, rather succinctly.
So now, a team that hadn’t passed .500 in the previous eight years sits one win from the Super Bowl. Sunday’s game between Green Bay and the New York Giants will determine where the 49ers play next.
A Giants upset will place the NFC title game at Candlestick. A Packers win will take the 49ers to Wisconsin next Sunday for a showdown with the defending Super Bowl champs and Aaron Rodgers, the quarterback infamously snubbed by San Francisco in favor of the late-blooming Smith seven years ago.
Scoring two late touchdowns to beat Drew Brees on Saturday elevated Smith into a new realm. Beating Rodgers and Green Bay, which has owned the 49ers for a generation, would redefine vindication.
The 49ers have been defined as a great defensive team that has to bail out its offense, especially its quarterback. On Saturday, Smith reversed the roles.
The 49ers’ defense did its lethal best for most of the game, forcing five turnovers, which should have finished off the Saints. But Brees’ offense works like a vampire – forever bloodthirsty and able to rise from the dead.
Whenever the Saints watch the film of this game, they will think it was written by Stephen King. They’ll see rookie Aldon Smith lunging at Brees like a vulture, taking him down and then rolling around on the field like a kid at recess. They’ll see Justin Smith coming at him like a demon. On one play, the veteran lineman actually shoved a lineman back toward Brees and then grabbed the quarterback by the collar and dragged him down in a three-man pile.
At that point, Brees was looking very uncertain, totally unlike the player who broke the single-season record for passing yardage. The 49ers came at him one play and then blanketed his receivers on the next one.
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio looked back to training camp to describe part of the 49ers’ motivation. The cover of the notebook handed out then bore a picture of Justin Smith and the numbers 0-1, his record in playoff games (with his previous employer, the Bengals).
The team wanted to change that for him. It did, with the help of the Smith on the other side and Davis, the tight end who has been the 49ers’ true go-to receiver in recent years.
Davis was relegated to a lot more blocking this year, and he conceded that he missed using his hands more. But he loved being on a winner, more than he wanted the ball.
He got both things Saturday. He has a chemistry with Smith that no other receiver can match. They moved the ball downfield together, and then the quarterback threw that 14-yarder hard, right at the heart. As it turns out, that is the 49ers’ least vulnerable spot.