When one of the greatest playoff games in NFL history was over last Saturday on a spectacular sun-soaked afternoon in San Francisco, Doug Smith greeted his son Alex in the parking lot with a smile, a hug and a very good question: "Do you [earn] two fourth-quarter comebacks for that?"
Considering everything Smith has been through since being the No. 1 pick out of Utah in 2005—including three coaches, seven offensive coordinators, at least two shoulder surgeries and countless pronouncements that he was at best a game manager and at worst a total bust—the 49ers' quarterback deserved that credit and much more after pulling out a thrilling 36--32 victory over the favored Saints in Candlestick Park. But typical of his style both off the field and in the pocket, the bearded, blue-eyed Californian handled the question with the same cool he showed against New Orleans's blitz packages.
"Yeah, right," Smith said with a chuckle.
Outside the San Francisco locker room and his own family, no one envisioned a scenario in which Smith would go toe-to-toe with Drew Brees and walk away victorious. Brees had just broken Dan Marino's 27-year-old record for passing yards in a season, with 5,476, and set a new mark for completion percentage, at 71.2. He threw 46 touchdown passes, fourth most all time, and directed an offense that had put up at least 42 points in four straight games. In his previous five playoff games, Brees had thrown for 13 scores and no interceptions, and had won a Super Bowl.
Smith, by contrast, was making his first postseason appearance; four months earlier he was booed at Candlestick, where many of the Niners' faithful believed his welcome had worn out years earlier. The Saints, like most opponents, thought so little of Smith's passing that they forced the ball into his hands by loading up against the run. He made them pay early with two first-quarter touchdown passes (the second coming after a Brees interception), but the tenor of the game changed as the Saints battled back. With just over four minutes to play they took their first lead, 24--23, on a 44-yard catch-and-run by Darren Sproles.
A stadium that rocked earlier in the day was suddenly still, as if fans were saying to themselves: Really? Alex Smith is going to rally us?
In fact, Smith rallied the Niners twice, leading consecutive touchdown drives of 80 and 85 yards in less than two minutes each. He capped the first with a 28-yard naked bootleg around left end on third-and-eight, during which he grinned through his face mask well before reaching the end zone. And after Brees took just four plays to go 88 yards and regain the lead, 32--29, on a 66-yard throw to tight end Jimmy Graham, Smith—in front of many of the same fans who once longed for his departure—returned to the huddle at his own 15-yard line with 1:32 left.
He began slowly, with two short passes to running back Frank Gore, then found Vernon Davis for 47 yards. Another short pass to Gore put the ball at the Saints' 20, where Smith spiked it to stop the clock at 0:14. Suddenly, Candlestick swayed again. Three points were all but assured: David Akers kicked a league-record 44 field goals this season, hitting 31 of 32 inside 40 yards.
With a timeout left, the 49ers didn't need to take chances. They could run the ball, send a safe pass into the flat or try a fade into the corner. But when you have a QB whom you trust to win games—not simply manage them—you do what offensive coordinator Greg Roman did and dial up a play that quarterbacks coach Geep Chryst had given him earlier in the week.
A former assistant with the Panthers, Chryst had faced the Saints twice a year in the NFC South for five seasons. One tip he took from those matchups was that safety Roman Harper liked to settle two yards behind the goal line on red zone pass plays. So San Francisco slotted Davis to the left side and had him run vertically before cutting sharply to the middle, in front of Harper. There was nothing safe about the call, because a linebacker could step into the passing lane or Harper could break tendency and sit closer to the goal line. A gnat would have had a hard time fitting through the window, let alone a football.
But Smith took the snap from the shotgun, set his feet and whistled a pass to Davis, who would score the game's first and last touchdowns. As teammates mobbed him in the end zone, Davis—who like Smith was playing in his first postseason game—wept as if witnessing the birth of his child. In truth a sellout crowd and a national TV audience had witnessed the rebirth of a franchise that won five Super Bowls in the 1980s and '90s and went a record 16 straight years with at least 10 wins. That it was Smith making the delivery was fitting to his teammates and coaches.
"He deserved to win," said Roman, who was Jim Harbaugh's coordinator at Stanford and came to the Niners last January when Harbaugh was hired as coach. "When I met with [Smith] after being hired, you could see how badly he wanted it. He had been through so much here but didn't want to turn and run. He wanted to stay and fight. It said so much about him that I told myself, I want to help make him successful."
If it had been up to Smith's family and friends, Saturday never would have happened. Pam and Doug Smith, who live in the San Diego area, have attended each of their son's games since he entered the league. They have seen the pain his body has endured and the mental anguish of his being roundly booed. They listened as one coach, Mike Nolan, questioned Smith's physical toughness, and another, Mike Singletary, doubted his leadership.
After concluding 2010 with a 38--7 win over the Cardinals, Alex and his wife, Elizabeth, joined Pam, Doug and two friends for dinner. Smith was set to become a free agent, and the talk was about what he should do next. All agreed on one thing: He should leave San Francisco. The group even raised glasses and made a toast: "To moving on."
"Everybody who knew him was trying to get him to move on," Pam says. "When we talked to him, it was, 'Alex, you've given it your all here. You can move on with your head held high.'"
Smith, though, wanted to subtract emotion from his decision. Singletary had been fired a week before the finale, and when Harbaugh was lured from Stanford 12 days later, Smith was intrigued. After meeting with the new coach, a 1987 first-round pick of the Bears who spent 15 years in the NFL, Smith was sold—he signed a one-year, $5 million deal—even if his family still had reservations.
At one point in late January, Smith left his cellphone at the team's facility. Harbaugh wanted to tell him but didn't know how to reach the quarterback. So he called Smith's parents to see if they had a cell number for Smith's wife. The conversation did not go as Harbaugh envisioned. "I told his dad, 'I really want Alex here. This could be his fresh start,' " Harbaugh says. "That was met with crickets. You could hear the chirping on the other end of the phone."
Harbaugh laughed before adding: "I felt for them, I really did. I totally understood that this would maybe be the last place they would want their son. It's spectacular how things have transpired."
The 49ers, who had not won more than eight games in a season since 2002, are 14--3 and hosting the Giants in the NFC Championship Game at Candlestick on Sunday. Along the way Smith has outdueled Ben Roethlisberger, Matthew Stafford, Eli Manning and, yes, Brees. After a road game midway through the season, Harbaugh met Smith's mother for the first time. With unblinking eyes he told her that Alex is the toughest player he has ever coached. As a coach's son and a quarterback who wasn't afraid to mix it up during his playing career, Harbaugh doesn't toss around such accolades loosely.
"He's had shoulder injuries, taken some big hits, and he just keeps on playing," says Harbaugh. "He went through some hideous treatment, not only thrown under the bus by the fan base but also by the team and the so-called experts who said some vile things about him. He's stoic about it, and he doesn't respond, doesn't flinch. But he thinks about it because it hurt. Still, he forges on."
The 49ers' offense revolves around its running game, defense and special teams. Smith had only 445 pass attempts this season, 212 fewer than Brees. Yet to focus on his stats is to miss his cool under pressure. In 2011, Smith has come through in big moments. At Cincinnati, the Niners trailed 6--3 with nine minutes to go. Smith calmly completed 4 of 5 passes for 48 yards on a 10-play, 72-yard drive for the decisive score. The following week at Philadelphia the 49ers trailed 23--3 early in the third quarter. On consecutive possessions Smith went 3 of 3 for 78 yards and a touchdown and 3 of 3 for 62 and a score, and San Francisco won 24--23 with a late touchdown run by Gore. Two weeks later at Detroit, the Niners trailed 19--15 and faced a fourth-and-goal from the six with 1:56 to play. Smith took the snap, set his feet and fired a dart into the chest of tight end Delanie Walker as he was crossing the goal line. But in the seven years since San Francisco drafted him, no comeback was more momentous than the one Smith pulled off on Saturday.
As fans hooted and hollered and rocked the stadium after Smith's touchdown pass to Davis, his third TD throw of the day, Pam and Doug and a small group of family friends looked at one another through tear-filled eyes in a section behind the 49ers' bench. "It was very emotional," Pam would say that evening. "We were all going crazy, but in the back of our minds was everything Alex had been through over the years. All the talk that he can't carry the team or can't make the big plays. It's one thing to come back once in the final minutes against a team as good as the Saints and Drew Brees. But to do it twice? On that stage? With that type of pressure? There were truly tears of joy. The contrast with previous years was fresh in our minds."
When the family gathered after the game, another toast was in order—and moving on had new meaning. Smith and the 49ers were headed to the title game, the Super Bowl in their sights.
TIM LAYDEN'S NFC FORECAST
GIANTS at 49ERS
SUNDAY, 6:30 P.M. ET
The 49ers emerged heroically from an eight-year playoff drought to go 13--3 and earn a playoff bye—and were still a four-point underdog at home to the Saints. The Giants were left for dead after a 1--5 stretch in November and December, before beating the Jets, Cowboys, Falcons and Packers in four straight elimination games. The battle for the right to play the no-respect card might even be better than the NFC title game.
New York's midseason slide started with a 27--20 loss at Candlestick in Week 10, a game that wasn't decided until Eli Manning's red zone pass was batted down by end Justin Smith on the Giants' final play. San Francisco's seasonlong ascent was built on the NFC's best defense, but Drew Brees picked it apart last Saturday for 462 yards. Expect the red-hot Manning to be nearly as effective—and counterpart Alex Smith much less so against a better pass rush than New Orleans's, with higher stakes. The upshot: a Super Bowl XLII rematch.
Giants 31, 49ers 21
"HE DESERVED TO WIN," ROMAN SAID OF SMITH. "HE'D BEEN THROUGH SO MUCH HERE BUT DIDN'T TURN AND RUN. HE WANTED TO STAY AND FIGHT."
Photograph by ROBERT BECK
TICKTOCK On a clockwork final drive, the cool-headed Smith targeted Davis (85) over the middle for a 47-yarder that set up their game-winning connection.
ROBERT BECK (DAVIS)
GOLDEN MOMENTS Smith's perfectly lofted 37-yard sideline pass to Davis (85) led to his own surprise scoring sprint (left), but that first comeback just set the stage for the pulsating ending.
PETER READ MILLER (SMITH)
[See caption above]
PETER READ MILLER (SMITH)
JUSTIN TIME Defensive end Justin Smith celebrated San Francisco's first berth in a conference title game since January 1998.