Alex Smith, welcome to the other side. After six years of up and down play that resulted in countless arguments on this site, Alex Smith made "the leap." If he does nothing else for the rest of his career, he will always have Saturday afternoon. After years of derision, Alex Smith reached the mountain top.
Before you say, "Well, he has to win a Super Bowl to get to the real mountain top," let's remember how far he has come this year. Fifteen months ago on Sunday Night Football, 49ers fans snapped as we heard the infamous "We Want Carr" chant go up in Candlestick Park. There were no winners in that one as Alex Smith was struggling and 49ers fans were at their breaking point. You could blame nobody and everybody for that.
Fifteen months later, Alex Smith is a conquering hero. We've heard over and over about how he could have gone elsewhere and escaped from the madness of San Francisco. Much of the last six years were a veritable disaster for Smith and the team. There were high points, but by the end of the 2010 season, all parties involved seemed completely exhausted with each other. On January 2, 2011, following the 49ers season-ending victory over the Arizona Cardinals, I don't know many people who expected Alex Smith to be back in 2011.
And then, Jim Harbaugh happened and the NFL lockout happened. Harbaugh had to know the limitations the lockout would impose on finding a quarterback. He had a chance to meet with Alex before the lockout and both sides decided to give it a go. Alex has mentioned how it would have been easy to run and he wanted to stick it out, but I'm curious how much of his decision was thanks to a big-time sales job by Jim Harbaugh.
He had a subsequent meeting with Harbaugh during the one day suspension of the lockout and had a chance to get the information needed to lead "Camp Alex." While it remains to be seen how much of an impact the minicamp had on implementing the offense and getting the team ready, the leadership of Alex Smith in taking control of the situation looks pretty important in hindsight.
We'll have plenty of time to look back on the 2011 season, hopefully in a few more weeks. But in looking back at Alex Smith in 2011 versus Alex Smith at any other time in his 49ers career, the huge difference has been confidence. While he might have always been a good guy in the locker room and a guy who could make the occasional fourth quarter comeback, the difference this year is apparent. Jim Harbaugh has been in his corner from day one without a single public moment of doubt.
The 2011 regular season saw the re-birth take shape as the guy some have called "The Phoenix" (I kinda like that one) started to rise from the ashes. He was still labeled a "game manager" for much of this season in part because the 49ers really did not rely on him to make a ton of plays like a Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers. He did show an ability to take over on occasion (chunks of the Giants game, the third quarter against the Eagles), so the "game manager" label was a bit of a misnomer depending on how we defined the word. Nonetheless, there were some concerns about the 49ers taking on some of the high-flying passing attacks.
And then Saturday happened. We had numerous discussions about whether Alex Smith could help this team win a shootout. The closest they came to a shootout this season was against the Giants and even that wasn't really a traditional shootout. There were concerns about what would happen if there was a defensive letdown.
Well, Saturday we got an answer.
The final seven minutes of Saturday's game was as much a shootout as you'll ever see. Say what you want about the Saints defensive game-plan (and it was awful late), but Alex Smith took the bull by the horns and won this game for the 49ers. Vernon Davis was key of course and deserves all the credit in the world for his monster performance, but Alex Smith was on fire.
He had the huge keeper touchdown run in a perfect play call against the Saints overly aggressive defense. We've always known he has some manner of athleticism and it was nice to see him show that Tim Tebow and Cam Newton are not the only guys with solid scrambling skills. Then, on the final drive, he nailed Vernon Davis in the absolute perfect location. In years' past he might have thrown behind or high or low. Saturday, they were perfect.
And as we have discussed in the past, this really could not have happened to a better person. Alex Smith has taken his lumps in San Francisco and been a man about it. Jim Harbaugh talks about his "Mighty Men" and Alex Smith personifies that. He is not the biggest or the fastest, but he is a Man. This 49ers team is made up of so many great people and Alex Smith is truly one of the leaders.
There are still two more wins to be notched, but for now life is good with Alex Smith as the 49ers quarterback. I've been waiting a while for the right time to post this video. The first time I heard the song (on Pandora) was only about three months ago, but I immediately thought of Alex Smith. There is some NSFW language if you're at work.