When the San Francisco 49ers step foot between the white lines at Lincoln Financial Field on Sunday, they will be facing the biggest test the team has had in over five years.
Back in 2005, the 49ers drafted Alex Smith with the No. 1 overall pick with the hope he would become their franchise quarterback. The reason the 49ers had the highest selection in the '05 draft was because the 2004 squad finished with a miserable 2-14 record.
Prior to that miserable 2004 team was a hit-and-miss 2003 49er squad that finished a disappointing 7-9. That year was the last time the 49ers held a mark as high as 6-7 through week 14.
Until this season.
Like in 2003, this current bunch of 6-7 49ers still have playoff hopes on the line and can ill afford to lose another game.
Therefore, it will be exactly six years and three days come Sunday since the 49ers last played a meaningful game this deep in the season.
While the 2003 49ers fell just three points short against the Bengals in their attempt to reach the .500 mark, quarterback Jeff Garcia went 26-33 for 343 yards, threw for two touchdowns, zero interceptions and amassed a quarterback rating of 130.3. Not to mention he ran the ball four times for 51 yards and a touchdown, his third of the game.
With the season on the line, Garcia couldn't have played a better game. He put his best effort forth when his team needed him the most.
Now the 2009 Philadelphia Eagles pose a similar threat to current 49ers starter Alex Smith. While the opponent Smith faces is undoubtedly better than the 2003 Bengals, the situation remains the same.
The 49ers are facing a must-win game on the road against an East Coast opponent who can score points with the best offenses in the league.
Whether or not the 49ers can pull out the upset and win the game is a whole different story. What Smith needs to do is mimic the performance Garcia gave back in 2003, regardless of whether or not his team wins the game.
As we all know, the quarterback position in football is the most important position of any team sport in the world.
Currently the 49ers have a quarterback who could follow one of two paths. Smith could follow in the direction of a Jay Cutler and be that flashy and inconsistent quarterback or he could follow in the footsteps of an Eli Manning and blossom into the quarterback who wins the big game.
To be fair, in the near future Smith will be the 49ers quarterback regardless of the remaining three games. He is clearly the best they have at the position and San Francisco almost assuredly won't use another high draft choice on a quarterback and free agent options will be limited.
But if Smith doesn't give a Pro Bowl-caliber performance on Sunday, his fate will be sealed.
If he can't rise to the occasion and pick apart a highly regarded secondary, then how will he ever be the quarterback who leads San Francisco to their sixth Super Bowl championship?
When it comes to quarterbacking in the NFL, the best of the best simply dominate any defense that comes before them. The Montanas, the Youngs, the Bradys, the Mannings, the Favres, the Aikmans, the Elways, the Warners, the Marinos, and the Brees of the world just know how to be at the top of their game even when facing the most dominant defenses.
In Smith's case, we have seen glimpses of him being Manning-like, but we have also seen him be Cutler-esque with the interceptions. We have seen both of these versions of Smith in the same game and we have seen games where only the Cutler version shows up.
But we have yet to see whether the Manning-like version can show up for an entire game against a quality opponent.
Fans can say that Smith's 232-yard, two touchdown performance against Jacksonville was impressive, but in honesty it did nothing to knock anyone's socks off. Nobody has ever said "wow" and "Alex Smith" in the same sentence when speaking positively of the former No. 1 pick since he was drafted back in 2005.
But Sunday's game in Philadelphia is Smith's chance to prove himself and make fans say "wow, did Alex Smith just play at the same level as Donovan McNabb?"
If Smith can put together a dominant quarterbacking performance in a game where his team needs him to play at his highest level, he will have demonstrated his capability to win Super Bowls.
However, if Smith gives another one of those mediocre performances like he did last week against Arizona (19-of-35, 144 yards, two TDs, two INTs, 59.7 rating) he will have demonstrated that he is simply not a championship-caliber quarterback.
Now one way or another, Smith will return as the 49er starter next season. But if he doesn't give his best performance against the Eagles on Sunday, next season will be more of the same.
For every game he plays well, he will raise the hopes of the fanbase, but for everyone of those games there will be a game where his play makes fans want to shoot themselves in the foot.
All that is left is for Smith to prove whether or not he is a big game quarterback.
Writer's Note: Please tune into 1220am this Sunday at 8pm for the Sports Ramble radio show. Host Chetan Chaudhari talks Bay Area sports. Best place to listen is online at kdow.biz