He had no choice.
It's not like his offense hadn't struggled before. The unit was ranked 29th for a reason. Game after game, he'd been perfectly willing to grind out some yards, punt it away, and ask his defense to do the rest. But if nothing else, he's a man of pride.
And after watching his offense in the first half in Houston, a man of pride simply couldn't take it anymore.
Three first downs. Fifty yards, three per pass and two per rush. And naturally, zero points. Sure, we'd struggled, but now we were downright embarrassing. We were so weak, so toothless, you'd swear it was even affecting the morale of our defense. Was it just a coincidence that our D seemed less sharp, less intense? Fatigue was clearly a factor in that, as the D was stuck on the field way too long. But you could almost hear 'em muttering, what's the point of getting it back to those guys? Why even bother?
It was 21-nothing. His offense was a total disgrace, and it was threatening to break his team into pieces. He'd gone as far as he could, and now he simply had no choice.
Mike Singletary had to put an end to the era of Shaun Hill.
Just as the quarterback usually gets too much credit, he also tends to get too much blame. Hill's physical limitations were never a secret, but they only meant that he needed some help, and he never seemed to get the right kind. Mike Martz asked him to do too much, Jimmy Raye asked him to do too little. His receivers were always a step too slow, and his offensive line was one of the worst.
Hill gave us everything he had, and he got us plenty of wins. But in the end, Singletary wasn't gonna fire Raye, and Scot McCloughan wasn't gonna swing a trade for two new guards and a tackle. Practically speaking, something had to change with this offense—now—and this offense could change in only one way.
Enter Alex Smith.
Although Singletary did Smith a disservice by putting him through—and declaring he'd lost—a sham of a preseason quarterback-battle, the conditions for his return were otherwise close to perfect. If Smith had started game one, after spending two years injured while Hill was collecting wins, he'd have looked over his shoulder with every mistake. But by studying, practicing, and waiting for Hill to fade—by essentially becoming a rookie again—Smith could step in with unquestioned authority. The Niners again would be his team, and he'd have that rarest of gifts, and all he could ask for: a legitimate second-chance.
Of course, that's no guarantee of any success. Coming in cold in a hostile environment is no easy task, so it wouldn't be shocking to see Smith struggle, and struggle mightily. Whatever relief we might draw from the fact that our quarterback's a guy who can actually throw, that relief could evaporate with Smith's first pass. Admit you were waiting for his signature play: drop back, primary target covered, pocket collapses, pull ball down, roll right, fire ball out of bounds. You knew it was coming, and you were prepared right then to start beating the drum for the Nate Davis era.
Strangely, that play never happened. Stranger still, Alex Smith was better than ever.
Let's start with the numbers. 15 of 22 for 206 yards—Hill's season high (in a full game, mind you) is 209—three touchdowns, tying a career high, and one desperate pick in the final seconds. That's a rating of 118.6.
But it was more than that, much more. He looked so sure, so confident, showing no scars at all of a nightmarish career. He stood tall in the pocket, zipped through his progressions, stepped into his throws, and fired the ball with power and accuracy. He looked nothing like the skittish kid you remember. He looked like a grown-up (though still a young one) who knew, this might be my last chance, and I'm gonna seize it. He looked, in a real sense, born again.
All of a sudden, everything changed. Raye returned to his Zampesian roots, spreading the defense with funky formations. The offensive line was less exposed, with Smith's mobility and quick decisions. And the defense, playing again with a purpose, held an explosive offense to just three points.
In the end, though, we fell just short. After that first half was lost in the sun (and Allen Rossum was released again why?), the hole we'd dug was a bit too deep. But make no mistake, the Texans escaped. About to go down, they were saved by the bell.
Saved. From Alex Smith.
Hold on a second. Couldn't this be just a flash in the pan? Remember, the Texans had prepared for Hill, not Smith, and they were sitting on 21 points besides. And the bus station's full of backups who started out with a bang in conditions like these, only to crash when the defense caught up. Want names? Look no further than the guy Smith replaced.
But something just feels different here. This isn't some stranger. We know this guy, inside and out. We've been through his highs and lows, healthy and hurt. And after all that, after all we've been through, I just don't think he could fool us.
We knew him before. And we saw him on Sunday.
And this guy is nothing like that guy at all.
With this Smith, the possibilities seem endless. With this Smith, Frank Gore might retake his place among the league's elite. With this Smith, Vernon Davis might take what's already a breakout season and explode into a perennial Pro Bowler. And with this Smith, we might also have a quarterback truly worthy...of Michael Crabtree.
You didn't think I'd forget about Crabtree, did you? The only shame about Smith's resurgence is that it obscures one of the most remarkable debuts in the history of time. After as misguided a holdout as ever there was, no one could've expected much from Crabtree this year, much less this game. He hadn't played football in months, and he'd skipped out while his teammates were bleeding and sweating through an entire preseason. And when he finally accepted defeat, how did Singletary—a veritable anti-diva machine—make him pay? He made him practice in a blank helmet for a while, and then he handed him a starting job.
As you say in the forum, "WTF?"
Yet there he was, right away our best wide-receiver by 500 miles. He played the whole game, he got open with ease, and he caught every ball in his general vicinity. One game—one game—and Michael Crabtree already is Michael Irvin.
Holdout? What holdout?
Of course, this exciting new offense does not accord with Singletary's boring offensive philosophy. He loves to run to set up the pass, but by now he must know that it can't work here; he simply lacks the offensive line. He must know that he can't keep his now-explosive passing game under wraps until it's 21-zip. He must use it early and use it often, and once he's stretched and loosened the defense, that's when he'll be able to gash it with runs. With the introductions of Smith and Crabtree, Singletary's proven he's willing to change. We'll really be onto something, Coach, if this means your philosophy's changing too.
Weird season. For the first time all year, we're out of first place. We're a .500 team, and we could easily leave Indy on a three-game skid. Yet right here, right now, I've got more hope than I've had in years.
Our hope is riding on you, Alex. No pressure or anything. Just a simple request.
Be real, Alex. Please be real.