Before Sunday, everybody still had their questions and doubts. Smith had been mostly terrific in guiding the 49ers to their whirlwind 7-1 start at midseason. But he still was being viewed outside San Francisco as a supporting player in the new hit production being orchestrated out West by that new coaching genius-in-training, Jim Harbaugh.
The 49ers were rolling not because of Smith, but because he wasn’t getting in the way and screwing it up. From an offensive perspective, the 49ers were Frank Gore’s team. Smith was just on hand to hand off and make high-percentage plays in the passing game, as they say, to “manage” the game and manage the offense.
But what happens when Frank Gore’s team suddenly doesn’t have Frank Gore? And what happens when that comes on an afternoon when the 49ers are playing the surging, battle-tested New York Giants, a team experienced in big games, a team that openly downplayed Smith’s contribution to San Francisco’s newfound success during the week leading up to the game?
Now everybody knows.
Smith took the offense on his shoulders, on his capable right arm and willing legs, and passed and willed the 49ers to a 27-20 victory in what amounts to the most significant triumph of his career.
This was partly by design. The 49ers had planned to come out passing with Smith. They had planned to put the game in his hands coming out of the gate to see what he could do with it. And to hear the Niners tell it, there was never really any doubt that Smith would do with it what he did.
“The game plan was to put the ball in his hand, and he responded like we knew he would,” Harbaugh said. “He’s done that for us all year. He’s a top-flight quarterback. Love him.”
Relatively speaking, Smith had indeed done that for the 49ers all year, to some degree. The improbable comeback in Philadelphia. The clutch winning touchdown pass in Detroit. A series of high-efficiency performances during which Smith passes just enough to be effective in the background of Gore’s high-profile rushing exploits.
But never to this degree. Not with Gore struggling with ankle and then knee issues. Not with Gore on the bench. Not with Gore finishing a game with zero yards rushing.
No, New York was Smith’s true midseason exam, to see if the best half-season of his career had really been legitimate. After completing 19 of 30 passes for 242 yards, adding 27 yards rushing, constantly wiggling away from pressure to make plays or to keep them alive, and personally accounting for 88 percent of San Francisco’s 305 yards of total offense, Smith passed the test.
In the process, Smith passed into a new realm of consciousness, a new plateau of where he now stands with the team that selected him No. 1 overall in the 2005 NFL draft.
Never before since that spring day of 6½ years ago does Smith stand higher on that lofty terrain that he does today. This is Alex Smith’s team now more than it ever has been before.
Smith has been through way too many ups and downs with the 49ers to appreciate the implications of that suggestion. His skin is thick and hard from the abuse he’s taken over the years. His temperament is even. And that’s the way it has been every week this season during Smith’s steady, incremental rise from the shame of bustdom.
With Smith riding high – and the 49ers riding as high as they ever have at this point in a season during the 21st century in large part because of him – NinersDigest put this question on Smith after Sunday’s game: Does he feel like the 49ers are a little more his team now because so much was on Smith to make San Francisco 27, New York 20 actually happen, and that it wouldn’t have happened without him answering the challenge in the fashion he did Sunday?
Smith took no time to process the question.
“No, I don’t know that I feel it’s any more my team,” he responded. Then he took a second to reflect.
“It feels great to… knew we were going to get a lot put on our shoulders in the pass game, as far as the guys on the perimeter and me,” Smith continued. “And it feels great to be accountable to your teammates. We work so hard, so to be able to hold up your end and to come through the way we did, it feels great.”
Accountable. Now, that’s a very Alex Smith kind of way to put it. Yeah, Smith was accountable alright, accountable on the biggest stage the 49ers have played on since the 2002 season playoffs, a football lifetime ago.
Afterward, the praise for Smith was flying around the San Francisco locker room, much like it has for most of the season. But some guys know better what Smith has been through, what it really has taken for him to make believers of not just everybody, but anybody.
Vernon Davis knows.
“He’s a strong man,” the Pro Bowl tight end said. “I’ve been here when Alex was getting yelled at and everybody was talking bad about him. He keeps his head up and just keeps on moving. I give my heart to Alex. He’s a strong guy.”
Davis went on: “Alex, he knows he’s on his last straw coming into the season, he knows that. So he decided to just take off, take off and do everything that the coaches are asking him to do. And that’s what he’s doing. He’s being a game manager and doing everything within the system to help us win games. And that’s all we can do is just praise him and keep lifting him up.”
Davis meant “game manager” as a high form of flattery. But many have used that description of Smith in almost derogatory terms this year. Harbaugh pounced on the subject after a general question regarding how difficult it would be for anyone now to underestimate his high-flying, constantly-improving, determinedly-focused team.
“I believe in you guys, the media,” Harbaugh responded. “I believe that you will find a way. Alex Smith, you find a way to keep diminishing the guy. They call him a game manager, and he’s a great game manager. But you read it and you hear people talk about him and they’re trying to slight him when they say that. He, once again, goes out and plays great football and keeps proving it. That’s what the guy’s about.”
And then there was this from offensive coordinator Greg Roman, who like Harbaugh is another man that’s been instrumental in putting Smith in a position to succeed this year:
“Alex is a cool customer, a cool customer,” Roman repeated. “Detroit, Philly, this game… the guy’s really got some poise about him and it’s every day. Alex performed exactly pretty much like we thought he would, at a high level. He executed the plan and didn’t blink from the first play of the game to the last.”
Smith wasn’t blinking afterward, either. The shift in public perception is hardly enough to move him.
But it’s different with that feeling Smith can see spreading around him each week in the San Francisco locker room. It’s different because Smith knows, deep in his heart, that he’s one of people largely responsible for it.
“I managed myself into a victory, that’s all I could care about,” Smith said, obviously referencing to Justin Tuck’s putdown of Smith’s relevance leading up to Sunday’s game. “I could honestly care less (about the label). I don’t care. That is the honest truth. It feels good to be 8-1. We’re winning games. Obviously, you are as good as your record.”
And for once, San Francisco’s record makes Smith’s past irrelevant. It’s all about now. And now says Alex Smith has erased any lingering doubt, has left behind any straggling detractors. This is his team now, finally.
“I’m not going to sit here and kick anything that happened in the last seven years,” Smith said. “I’m thinking about now. We’re on a great run. I’ve got a great group of guys in the locker room, and that’s all I’m going to worry about.”
It’s Smith’s team now to worry about. And to be sure, after Sunday, that team is worrying very little about him.