SAN FRANCISCO – He was always cerebral. We knew that. He was always polite. We knew that. He was always trying to prove he was more than a first-round bust or, most recently, so much more than a seat warmer while rookie Colin Kaepernick developed.
We wondered about that last part, though.
We didn’t know this Alex Smith.
In an NFC playoff game of epic plays and emotional swings – four touchdowns in the final 4:02 – the 49ers veteran who has been doubted, booed on his own field and verbally undressed by former coaches responded with a performance that shocked the NFL world. And the New Orleans Saints.
“It might be time to start giving Alex Smith a little credit,” coach Jim Harbaugh facetiously suggested after the 49ers outlasted the Saints 36-32 and advanced to the NFC Championship Game for the first time since the 1997 season. “We put this game in his hands.”
But it wasn’t just his hands. It was his right foot and his left foot. It was his right arm and his once-ailing, surgically repaired shoulder. It was his bold decision-making and his undeniable connection with tight end Vernon Davis. Mostly, it was his ability to outduel Drew Brees in those crazy, closing, spectacular moments.
Candlestick Park is still trembling.
Not once, but twice, Smith brought the 49ers back from the brink of elimination. Not once, but twice in the remaining 2:11, he answered a Saints scoring drive with one of his own, finally ending it with a 14-yard strike to Davis with nine seconds left.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Smith’s first playoff performance was the fact the 49ers were teetering, ready to break after only bending for the better part of an afternoon, when he became the leader who refused to lose.
This was Brees and these were his Saints, a formidable, experienced opponent that attacks with blitzes and a high-octane passing game. But come on. We should know better by now. These are Harbaugh’s 49ers, a group that was retooled emotionally as well as physically during the offseason.
They leave the stadium in work shirts, not dress shirts. They play defense like a bunch of bruisers, leading to the league lead in takeaways. On Saturday, that mentality led to three New Orleans fumbles (two by Darren Sproles) and two interceptions, to one jarring, blistering hit after another. Justin Smith. Aldon Smith. Donte Whitner. Carlos Rogers. Dashon Goldson. Tarell Brown.
Name the player and invariably he made a contribution, but none more so than Smith and his loquacious pal Davis, who supported the quarterback during his very public and embarrassing spats with former coaches Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary.
“You can just imagine a little kid standing there and getting picked on in grade school,” an emotional Davis said. “Rocks thrown at him. Spit on. Alex has been there, right there. I want to see him successful and have all good things happen to him because he’s a warrior.”
Those final two drives? In those last two minutes?
One was amazing, the other almost as amazing.
With the 49ers trailing 24-23, Smith, under intense pressure, found Davis over the middle for 37 yards. Two running plays and a timeout later – during which Smith campaigned for a bootleg known as QB 9 – the seven-year veteran took the snap in the shotgun from the Saints’ 28 and took off.
“I saw the crack,” Smith said with a half-smile. “It was third and eight. The first down was what I was going for.”
Instead, he was in the end zone, and in one of those “What do you think of me now?” gestures, he flipped the ball behind him and onto the dirt.
He wasn’t finished yet, though, and neither were the Saints. Brees found tight end Jimmy Graham for a 66-yard touchdown and Sproles for a two-point conversion that sucked the air out of Candlestick Park. With 1:32 left, Smith went for the win, for another famous drive, for another of those memorable 49ers moments.
He found Frank Gore once, then again. He launched a perfect pass down the left sideline to Davis, who made an over-shoulder catch and charged for 47 yards. And then with the most surprising of seasons hanging in the balance, he aimed a laser – just ripped the ball over the middle – to his favorite target, Davis, for the winning touchdown.
“I know there was ‘The Catch,'” Harbaugh said. “I don’t know what you’re going to call this one. ‘The Throw?’ ‘The Throw and Catch?'”
Call it what you want. Call it anything. But after what he did Saturday, it would be hard to call Smith anything other than a winner.