In a post late last month, I wrote that Alex Smith had become a competent role player but questioned whether he could inspire confidence in his teammates.
San Francisco tight end Vernon Davis answered that on Sunday.
Davis’ answer: Everyone on the team believes in him.
What’s apparent from Smith’s performance on Saturday is that he now fully believes in himself.
He threw decisively all day and passed for two touchdowns in the heretofore psychologically imposing red zone. He threw two long completions to Davis, one for a touchdown and the other for the 47-yard gain that set up the game’s winning score.
And then, there was that touchdown itself, a sharply thrown ball that got there in front of New Orleans Saints safety Roman Harper and hit Davis squarely in the numbers as he streaked across the middle on a post pattern.
If that wasn’t a confident pass and a confident route, then I don’t know what is.
And not only that, but with 2:11 left in the fourth quarter, Smith ran with determination for a 28-yard touchdown to regain the San Francisco advantage at 29-24 after New Orleans had taken its first lead of the game.
What was significant, beyond that it happened, was that it happened after a dumb 49ers mistake. San Francisco had the ball 3rd-and-3 at the 23-yard line, and then was penalized for having 12 men in the huddle.
Instead of 3rd-and-3—a relatively manageable situation—it was now 3rd-and-8. In the past, Smith—and the rest of the team—might have been rattled.
This time, with the Saints and probably the rest of the 70,000-plus in Candlestick Park expecting a pass, Smith calmly rolled to the left sideline, cut upfield, picked up a block from offensive tackle Joe Staley and sprinted into the end zone.
When the Saints immediately struck back to retake the lead at 32-29, a less-confident team—and quarterback—might have folded. Instead, Smith connected with Davis on a short route that the 49ers tight end converted into a 47-yard gain down to the Saints’ 20-yard line.
Three plays later, with the ball at the 14, it was decision time: Get in position for an almost-certain field goal to tie the game, or go for broke?
The 49ers coaching staff dialed up the route, Davis ran it and Smith threw it.
And as Smith celebrated with the rest of the team, it was in a new context. No longer was he just a role player...someone whose abilities many had doubted.
No, this time he was much more. He was the 49ers’ undisputed leader, the man who had brought them back on a game-winning, 85-yard drive in a minute and 28 seconds.
He was the man who had made the big plays and answered the questions people had been asking for seven seasons.
Finally, he was the man Vernon Davis and the rest of his teammates could believe in.