Smith steps up for 49ers when it counts
The San Francisco 49ers are for real.
Can the same now be said about Alex Smith?
Not quite. One strong performance doesn’t erase 6 1/2 seasons of disappointment that comes with being the underachieving first overall pick of the 2005 NFL Draft.
But as San Francisco’s 27-20 victory over the visiting New York Giants proved, Smith may very well be putting the past behind him for good.
There were several heroes Sunday in a game that proved the surprising 49ers (8-1) must be considered a bona fide NFC playoff threat after dispatching the red-hot Giants (6-3). Defensive end Justin Smith batted down Eli Manning’s final pass attempt with 34 seconds remaining to secure San Francisco’s biggest win in almost a decade. Cornerback Carlos Rogers intercepted two Manning passes. David Akers executed a perfect onside kick attempt that led to one of his four field goals. Rookie backup running back Kendall Hunter dashed for a 17-yard touchdown to give San Francisco a 14-point fourth-quarter lead.
Yet what stood out most is how a quarterback who continues to get publicly slighted is making critics eat their words.
Giants defensive end Justin Tuck offered a harsh assessment last week when claiming that Smith was “a guy who (the 49ers) are trying to keep out of position to win the game.” The media (myself included) continues to proclaim that Smith is a “game-manager” on a conservative run-first offense. That’s the NFL equivalent to describing a dating prospect for a single friend as having a “lovely personality.”
Smith made us all look silly with a beautiful game. And Tuck was man enough to eat his words, apologizing to Smith on the field after the game.
The 49ers were well aware that New York would focus on stopping running back Frank Gore, who entered with a franchise-record five consecutive 100-yard rushing games. Even before Gore was sidelined in the second quarter by a knee injury, 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh had decided to throw early and often.
Nine of the 11 plays on San Francisco’s first drive were passes. By halftime, Smith had completed 12 of 17 attempts for 151 yards as San Francisco took a 9-6 lead. His two scrambles for 26 yards also helped compensate for Gore gaining zero yards on six rushes. Smith’s lone turnover wasn’t his fault as a perfectly thrown ball to Ted Ginn Jr. caromed off the wide receiver’s helmet and into the hands of Giants cornerback Corey Webster.
“I managed myself into a victory,” Smith deadpanned when asked about the “game-manager” title. “That’s all I really care about.”
Smith didn’t wing it as much in the second half, but he put the 49ers ahead for good early in the fourth quarter. Smith recognized Vernon Davis eluding zone coverage on a short route that the tight end turned into a 31-yard score. And thanks to a nice, albeit borderline-legal pick by Braylon Edwards on a Giants cornerback, fellow wide receiver Michael Crabtree hauled in a Smith toss for the two-point conversion that gave San Francisco a 20-13 advantage.
“In a big part, the game plan was to put the ball in his hands,” Harbaugh said of Smith. “He responded like we knew he would.”
Harbaugh’s confidence wasn’t shared by everyone. Despite their near-perfect record, there was a belief that the 49ers would stumble if an opponent could stifle the run and score in the 20s against one of the NFL’s stingiest defenses.
The Giants did both and still lost.
“I knew we were going to get a lot put on our shoulders in the passing game,” said Smith, who completed 19 of 30 attempts for 242 yards. “We work so hard. To be able to hold up our end of the bargain and come through the way we did feels great.”
Having his career resuscitated must feel the same even though Smith isn’t willing to discuss his travails. It’s hard to blame him. Considering his previous failings in San Francisco, Harbaugh’s decision to re-sign Smith in the offseason was largely met with ridicule.
The 49ers blamed Smith’s troubles largely on prior head coaches and the yearly shuffling of offensive coordinators. But to outsiders, Smith was considered a stop gap until 2011 second-round pick Colin Kaepernick became ready to play.
At this rate, Kaepernick may be riding the bench for some time to come. Smith now has 11 touchdowns and three interceptions on the season along with a solid completion percentage (64.0) and quarterback rating (95.8).
“Now teams know what Alex can do under pressure,” said 49ers tight end Delanie Walker, a Smith teammate since 2006. “Everybody out there can see that we have a great quarterback leading a great team.”
Walker is getting carried away but the 49ers have a great opportunity for a first-round playoff bye. Only two remaining opponents — Baltimore and Pittsburgh — have winning records.
One of the keys now will be whether the 49ers can remain what Justin Smith calls a “one-week-at-a-time” team and handle the additional attention and distractions that newfound success brings. Such leadership starts at quarterback — a role that Smith has waited for since entering the league.
“We’re 8-1. That’s it,” Alex Smith said. “You’re as good as your record and as good as your last game.”
For the 49ers and Smith in particular, Sunday was awfully good.