Alex Smith is done with stoicism, with playing NFL quarterback behind that guarded wall of public detachment he carefully constructed over the past six, mostly miserable seasons — a buttress to keep his sanity.
Frank Gore, the running back whose competitive angst seeps through his pores, is finished shedding tears of insecurity and self-loathing.
Saturday, there is nothing but validation to be gained for both when the San Francisco 49ers (13-3) host the 13-3 (1-0) New Orleans Saints in — get this — an NFC divisional playoff game. At Candlestick Park. In their house, before a supportive crowd that had become jaded by recent failures. It’s a fan base that didn’t always believe, but, deep down, really wanted to.
This next step is monumental for a storied franchise that has not sniffed the postseason since 2002. Only eight 49ers have ever suited up for a playoff contest. But this is a team that truly believes it can neutralize one of the NFL’s most prolific offenses and quarterback Drew Brees (the league’s all-time, single-season passing leader) by, well, just playing some damn good, mistake-free football.
That part has finally become routine in San Francisco.
The 49ers, once a laughingstock and a turnover machine, coughed up a middling five interceptions and five fumbles in the regular season, the fewest giveaways in franchise history. The defense, led by All-Pros Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and Justin Smith, surrendered only three rushing touchdowns and went 14 games without allowing a rushing TD.
Smith, who threw for 3,144 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2011, has been honest this week, saying he knows he won’t out-stat Brees, a bona fide rules-book legend who had 5,476 passing yards and completed 71 percent of his attempts.
“We’ve hit so many milestones that, now, we just go out and play,” Smith says.
Any past anxiety has been conquered, replaced by confidence.
Credit first-year head coach Jim Harbaugh with infusing this 49ers’ team with pride, self-respect and an honest sense of accomplishment. That has bred the aplomb realized when the 49ers delivered big on occasions when few figured they would, or could.
Ask the players, and they’ll recount several defining moments of 2011: the Oct. 16 road victory at then-undefeated Detroit, which pushed the team to its third road victory in the Eastern Time Zone and a 5-1 record; a 27-20 home win over the New York Giants on Nov. 13 that established them as an NFC force; a 21-3 demolition of the Pittsburgh Steelers at Candlestick on Dec. 19.
“All of those were huge. These coaches came here and they demanded a lot from us, and guys WANT that. They want that weight on their shoulders, and we respond to it,” says Smith, who used to shield himself from those years of criticism with a stone-faced demeanor, making him a personality that 49ers fans struggled to embrace.
These days, a fired-up Smith and Harbaugh seek out each other on game days before the coin toss. The coach approaches the quarterback, looks into his eyes and drives his fists into Smith’s shoulder pads. Hard.
“The smacking,” Smith calls it, with a grin. “It gets you ready. Get your helmet on, get your shoulder pads on and get smacked a little bit."
All of this hoopla is still somewhat hard to fathom for 49ers fans. They had been spoiled by the quintet of Lombardi Trophies residing in the team’s trophy case in its Santa Clara headquarters, but truth is, an entire generation has grown up knowing nothing but craptastic pro football in the Bay Area.
The last decade, smeared by myriad coaching changes and humiliating sub .500- finishes in seven of the last eight seasons, forced plenty to surrender their season tickets and screech for a complete overhaul — from ownership to coaches to the guys in uniform.
And two players were easy targets for wrath: Smith and Gore.
Both arrived in 2005; Smith, the No. 1 overall draft pick out of Urban Meyer’s spread offense at Utah, Gore a third-round selection from the University of Miami whose rushing talent was mitigated by an ACL tear his sophomore season.
Both were important offensive players who, for many seasons, were defined by two negatives in common — a propensity for mistakes (interceptions, fumbles) and a tendency to sustain injuries.
While Smith, beset by a serious shoulder injury in 2007, brushed aside the misfortune, Gore’s reaction to his nagging injuries (a broken wrist; a fractured hip; sore ankles and knees) and occasional sub-par games often left him an emotional wreck. He would openly sob after losses, bare his soul in tearful locker-room speeches.
And Gore would question his worth, privately and publicly. Did the team want him? Would he get a new contract? Did fans like him?
“Those days were hard. I remember all the tough times, all the hard times, and you don’t want to go through that when you love the game. It almost broke me,” recalls Gore, who became the 49ers’ all-time rusher this season while finishing with 1,211 yards (4.3 yards per carry) — sixth-most in the NFL, despite a Week 9 ankle injury that limited his carries late in the season.
Harbaugh’s arrival this season supplied Smith a competitive and mental twin, and it gave Gore someone in whom he could put his complete trust.
“Now, I know they’ve been sitting me and resting me so I’d be fresh for this playoff game,” Gore says, “and I understand why that is. Before, I probably would have questioned it.”
Smith and Gore have been through a lot as 49ers, and they see before them a team ready for something greater than the heartbreak of their previous six NFL seasons.
“Everybody in here, we’ve been the same team for the most part, for a while. So everybody understands and remembers what we went through before,” says Gore, motioning about a business-like 49ers’ post-practice locker room that offered no hint of playoff jitters.
“These guys, they remember when we would show up at a stadium and teams would probably laugh at us, knowing they had a win coming.
“Now we’ve got an opportunity to show people that we can be a top dog now. And that’s why every one of these practices is important. Every game is important to us. That’s why we’re where we’re at right now.”
As the regular season came to a close in December, Gore’s aunt, Mary Gore, traveled to San Francisco from her South Florida home and roamed the stadium parking lot before a game. She carried a large scrapbook, with pictures of her nephew throughout his football career.
Mary Gore approached groups of tailgating fans and asked them to sign the keepsake book with a gold Sharpie with well-wishes for her nephew. “Please,” she asked. “Let’s let Frank know that everyone appreciates him.”
Gore knows that now. “I haven’t cried in a while,” he says with a huge smile. “It’s all so much better now.”
Has he cried for joy in this amazing season? “Not yet,” he says.
That time is coming, Gore promises. And the 49ers will hold him to that.