To say Alex Smith was doubted this season would be an understatement. His own fans doubted him.
But, as a 49ers fan, I am finally ready to give him credit for becoming not only a better quarterback, but for leading the 49ers to the NFC Championship Game.
Fans who have followed Smith since being selected No. 1 overall in the 2005 NFL draft know the aches and pains. Smith would give us instances of brilliance, then disappointed us in the same breath.
For his first five seasons, Smith had all the excuses in the world: He had two different head coaches, six different offensive coordinators and had undergone two shoulder surgeries.
Nonetheless, they were all excuses in the end. After all, the No. 1 overall pick should be able to play better regardless. His first season was a disaster, throwing one touchdown to 11 interceptions. He then rebounded, throwing 16 touchdowns to 16 interceptions in his second season.
His third season was when the injury bug hit him, cutting his season short after he had thrown two touchdowns to four interceptions through seven games. His next two seasons were decent, but not the kind of progress die-hard Niners fans expected.
Then came this season.
Even after completing a career-best 61 percent of his throws, even after throwing 17 touchdowns to five interceptions, Smith was merely a "game manager" in the eyes of many. Sure, the 49ers went 13-3, but most of the credit was given to the defense, which has arguably been the best in the league this season.
I'll be honest, as a longtime 49ers fan, I had my doubts, too. I figured there was no way Smith could lead the 49ers over the high-powered New Orleans Saints led by a historic quarterback in Drew Brees.
I even wrote that there was no way the Saints weren't going to score at least 30 points in the Divisional Round, even against a defense as tough as the 49ers.
Well, the Saints scored 32 points...and they still lost.
That's because Smith has turned a corner. Forget not being a bust anymore; he's grown by leaps and bounds, and that couldn't have been more evident than against the Saints. He passed for 299 yards and three touchdowns to no interceptions, while scoring on a 28-yard bootleg in a critical moment of the game and throwing the game-winning touchdown strike to tight end Vernon Davis with nine ticks left.
When the Saints scored with four minutes to play, going up 24-23, you figured, hey, the 49ers may get a field goal, but then the Saints would probably drive down the field, get a touchdown and that would be all she wrote.
Instead, Smith scored on the bootleg, the Saints scored their inevitable touchdown, then Smith led the 49ers 85 yards in 1:09, using just seven plays to do so.
Of course, those not jaded by Smith's performances in the past should have known Smith was coming around all along. After all, Smith led the 49ers from behind in the fourth quarter three times in 2011: at Cincinnati, at Philadelphia and at Detroit. He's not only become a much better quarterback, he's become a late-game hero.
"Hero" and "Alex Smith."
Two words 49ers fans need to combine at this point.
I know I have.