Cohn: Smith last QB standing after playoff shootout
Published: Saturday, January 14, 2012 at 6:05 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 14, 2012 at 9:55 p.m.
It's time to end the second-guessing of Alex Smith. Enough already. Enough from you and enough from me.
He won the Saints game for the Niners. Sure, the 49ers' defense was aces and Vernon Davis was a superstar — the Niners' big-play receiver. But Smith brought back the 49ers in the fourth quarter in the shadows of Candlestick Park, in the shadows of Joe and Steve. He did twice. He really did.
And he beat Drew Brees, although Brees was great — no knock on Brees. It's just that Brees is a superstar and Smith was projected as a bit player — a game manager, an auxiliary gadget. And Smith won the game and Brees didn't.
So, let's talk about Smith's second comeback, the incredibly big one, the one that goes into history.
The Saints had taken the lead, 32-29 on a spectacular Brees TD throw to Jimmy Graham that went 66 yards. It was like the Niners had played well, played valiantly, but now they would lose to the superior team. It was inevitable — a gritty loss by an undermanned and overachieving bunch. That kind of blah blah.
Except the 49ers didn't see it like that, even though only a minute and a half remained and the Niners were starting from their own 15. Blake Costanzo, the super special teams player, later recalled the sideline scene.
“There's not another quarterback we'd trade for him on that drive,” he said. “He's a great player, great team player, great quarterback, great team leader, all that. On our sideline we wanted no one else but him leading us. People were actually saying that.”
Smith drove the 49ers down the field quickly, efficiently. He was no mere game manager. He was a game driver. With 14 seconds left, the Niners were at New Orleans' 14-yard line and quarterbacks coach Geep Chryst called the play, Vernon Post, and Jim Harbaugh relayed that over the headset.
Smith dropped back and did something unusual. He had been throwing changeups all game but now he needed something faster, a laser through an opening for checkmate. And he threw that ball at warp speed, a missile whooshing through the damp San Francisco air and Davis caught it for a touchdown, God, he caught it.
That throw and catch recalled Young's pass to Terrell Owens — The Throw — that beat the Packers in Candlestick in the 1999 wild-card game, a searing sphere that whistled through the air. Smith's throw equals Young's and now Smith is part of 49ers history.
Someone asked Smith the meaning of his throw to Davis.
“We're still playing, that's what it means. I don't want this to end.”
Like Harbaugh, Smith tries not to talk about meaning. FYI, he was wearing his Harbaugh-deluxe, blue-collar-guy shirt. It looked like a mechanic's shirt and it said “Alex” near the pocket.
“I like to wear it to big games,” he said. “Lots of press conferences, I see players in suits and it just doesn't make sense to me.”
Here is Vernon Davis on Smith: “Along the way, there has been a lot of stress, doubt and criticism. But when I look at him, I look at him as a warrior. You can just imagine a little kid standing there and getting picked on in grade school — rocks thrown at him, spit on. Alex is just one of those guys. He's been there. I mean, I just wish him all the best. I want to see him successful. I just want to see all good things happen to that guy, because he is a warrior.”
Understand this. The 49ers' whole season was set up to put the Saints game in the defense's hands. And for a time on Saturday, it was like that. The defense hurt the Saints offense, made it a fight, made it hard.
But at the end, it came down to Smith. The Niners had protected him, shielded him from being the deciding agent in games, and now he needed to decide. It was his moment to succeed or fail. If he failed, that would define him forever. But he succeeded. He completed that pass.
Here is Ricky Jean Francois on Smith: “A lot of people doubt him. I never put my doubt down on this dude. I put my money on him on last-second things like this. Alex is really showing the league he is one of the premier quarterbacks. He's not just a regular quarterback. When you name Eli, when you name Peyton, when you name Drew Brees, now you can name Alex Smith.”
When Jean Francois saw Smith throw that touchdown pass to Davis, what did he feel?
“Like a cold chill went down me and I said, ‘I put my trust in Alex. I'm not going to doubt one bit.' I understand he had ups and downs his previous years but now he's got a coach that played the position that's teaching him the ropes, that's teaching him the way. And this is what you come out with — one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, Alex Smith.”
Smith brought back the Niners once before he threw Vernon Post. They trailed by one with a little more than two minutes left. And they had a third-and-8 at the New Orleans 28 and they called timeout. Smith noticed Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman debating a play called QB9 — Smith would run around the left end, hopefully for a first down. The coaches were bogged down in their discussion and Smith asserted himself and said QB9 it should be. And it was. And he ran around the end and got the first down and saw clear air and just kept going, and gave the Niners the lead — for a while.
Just about everyone said the Niners would lose if the game became a shootout. Well, it became the Shootout at the OK Corral, four touchdowns in the last 4½ minutes, all lead changers. Talk about a shootout. And the 49ers won because — it still feels amazing to write this — Alex Smith sure can shoot.
So is he really elite?
“No doubt,” Costanzo said with a touch of irritation in his voice. “He's taken his team to the NFC Championship game. He's beat unbelievable teams. What more do you want from the guy?”
For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at cohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at email@example.com.
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