Dateline Indianapolis. The 49ers had just lost their third straight. Worse, they'd lost by abandoning their one ray of hope. Under the rejuvenated Alex Smith, operating brilliantly out of shotgun/three-receiver sets, the Niners had proven to be unstoppable. And in the second half, they'd simply decided to forget it. They'd scrapped those open formations and reverted to their stodgy ways, and they'd watched yet another game spin down the drain.
Naturally, post-game, Mike Singletary was asked to explain. Why, Coach? Why not keep it up? Why not spread 'em out and fire away until the defense proves it can stop you?
Singletary responded with gibberish:
"You don't want to put [Smith] in a situation where, 'OK, is Alex really ready to do that?' You take a step back. ... Once you do that then there are some things that are not happening, which you say, 'Well, maybe it's the core of your offense.' I think going forward, there's a trust issue there and there's also using wisdom and making sure that if we are going to put [Smith] in that situation, when do we put [him] in that situation and is Alex really ready for that? Do we do something to hurt him? That's not something that I want to do."
Generously paraphrased, Singletary was saying hold on. Sure, in short spurts, Smith had done a great impression of Peyton Manning. But did that mean he could do it over the course of a whole game? Did that mean he could throw 40 or 50 passes without making the critical mistake that it was Singletary's mission in life to avoid? Did that mean Singletary would be willing to trash his play-it-safe mentality and place his fate in the hands of a born-again rookie?
As Singletary put it, "there's a trust issue there."
We skewered him. Even though Smith was ready to succeed, Singletary would stick with what's already failed, and a promising season would go down the tubes.
But a strange thing happened during the next week. Singletary took a look at his next opponent, the Tennessee Titans. They were one-and-six. They would be on the road. And of all the pass defenses in all the league, the Titans' stood as the very worst.
Finally something clicked. As much as he'd love to stay run-first, he simply couldn't afford it now. He needed
this game. He'd lost four times, but all four losses were somehow defensible, all to winning teams, three on the road. Now he'd be at home against a team with one win, and he simply had to have it. Win this, and we're back at .500 and still in control of our destiny. Lose, and everything goes up in smoke.
Much against his better judgment, Singletary handed his season to Alex Smith.
From wire to wire, the offense was open. Using plenty of spread formations, Jimmy Raye called pass on his first five plays. All told, he called for 18 runs and 51 throws. And this year anyway, the Niners had never been better at both. Smith completed 29 passes, a career high. He threw for 286 yards, a team season-high. On the receiving end, Vernon Davis continued his march to the Pro Bowl, Jason Hill brought two scores out of nowhere, and Frank Gore became a Craig-like machine, catching for 75 while rushing for 83 (and a 5.5 average without a stat-inflating bomb).
Despite all that throwing, we held the ball for 34 minutes. We replaced our standard three-and-outs with five scoring drives at least 50 yards each. And the longest was priceless, an 82-yard beauty capped by the greatest play of Smith's career. He was flushed, rolled right, waited, waited, kept his eyes downfield, and at the last moment he fired the ball to Hill in the end zone.
Smith was outstanding. He had us rolling.
And he absolutely gave the game away.
A first-quarter interception when he locked on his target and threw the ball late. A third-quarter fumble when he failed to step out of the rush. And a pair of fourth-quarter picks, one when he locked on his target again and another when he threw into coverage. Sure, our defense could've picked him up a bit. But the first pick put the Titans at the Niners' 24, the fumble put 'em at our own 36, the second pick went to our own 39, and the third was returned for a score. There's only so much that a defense can do.
Unfortunately, New Alex is Old Alex. That doesn't mean he's always bad. He had moments of greatness in Sunday's game, just as he's had throughout his career. But now was the time to make them hold up. No excuses. In past years everything was going against him, but here it all was pointed his way. He was at home, throwing often at a woeful D. His offensive line, constructed with tape, stayed mostly intact. He had reliable targets, if not necessarily great ones.
And still he couldn't deliver.
As much as we willed ourselves to believe the mere passage of time could take them away, all those bad habits remain, so entrenched as to be intractable. His moments of greatness are just a big tease, lost in the crush of the crippling mistake. The inevitable, crippling mistake that's come to define his entire career.
With disturbing frequency, Singletary's been wrong. He told us this would be a "special year," and so far it's not. He told us we'll go to the playoffs, and now it looks like we won't. But Alex Smith made him look like a genius. We were so sure—our certainty no doubt fueled by desperation—that Smith indeed was "ready to do that," ready to carry this team to success. Though Singletary had to give him the chance, he'd said what he really believed. He didn't think Alex was ready, and wasn't sure he'd ever be.
On that point, though it's cold comfort, Singletary was proven right.
Date: November 23, 2009 at 3:29 AM
Comment: Jeff, thanks for a very insightful article. Smith is not the answer for the future (I wish Nate Davis could get a few starts), but if we're stuck with him, the only possible option for winning might be with the spread offense. It's just sad that Singletary still appears to be delusional that his team is a smash-mouth running machine. Today, against the Packers they needed less than six inches for a first down, so they ran straight-up-the-middle with their power fullback, Moran Norris, and lost a yard! They did the same nonsense in their final possession against the Vikings when one 7-yard pass completion would have given them a game clinching 1st down. Of course, I now believe that Dingleberry has proven to be a stubborn, short-sighted, gibberish-talking excuse of a head coach. There appears to be little significant difference between Sing and Nolan. I feel sorry for those players who are busting their humps to win, and all 49er fans that have endured this seemingly never-ending string of losing seasons. Until cousin Jed actually thinks before he hires the next head coach, this team will be coming of age forever. The current 49er motto should read, "Just lose baby!"
Date: November 17, 2009 at 4:10 PM
Comment: Alex Smith is not a good quarterback. I agree with other fans' comments that all this apologism for A Smith is surprising. It's crazy to me to hear everyone talking about arm strength as if that's THE criterion for a good quarterback. Hello people, if any group of fans should understand what makes for a good quarterback, it should be us!! Montana is in our family, we're not strangers to this. "Montana Magic" had nothing to do with arm strength, it was confidence and determination and leadership by action. Montana was criticized his whole career for not having a strong arm. It's all about intangibles, it always has been. You can't so much see a "good qb" as you can feel that someone's a "good qb." Have you noticed Shaun Hill's last 3 years in S.F. and not just the games he won, but the games he lost? He had them in every game except Atlanta this year which was the coaches' fault I think; team just wasn't ready. When Sing benched Hill, that was the end for this year. Smith looks like a qb, but just is not, no amount of time is going to cure his problems and hearing Sing make crazy excuses for him just makes me know how far away we still are.
Date: November 16, 2009 at 1:32 PM
Comment: i totally disagree with some of the comments on Alex Smith. Some of the ppl said he had 4 years to develop, what development? did he have a bona fide offensive coordinator, another Qb to look up to, while sitting on the bench as a rookie? Look at Rodgers, he was very lucky to sit behind a future HOF Qb in GB, B. Favre...he had the same offensive coordinator and supporting cast, while brett was the QB, so when he took over the team it was in place for him...so people, don't criticize Alex so bad, like he had all the tools given him, like other good QBs had...Montana started the same way before he got really better organized or familiar with the offense that Bill Walsh incorporated, the west coast...so ppl chill, give the man a chance to prove himself...
Date: November 12, 2009 at 9:01 PM
Comment: Thank you Frank. I was just going to make that point. These geniuses who are so quick to label Alex Smith a "bust" and insist that he's had "five years" to lead this team just have no idea what they're talking about. Last year Alex was on IR and DID NOT get to PRACTICE! DUH! Give this 25 year old kid a break. No QB is going to be perfect, Brady, Brees and Manning all throw the occasional pick, but everytime Smith throws one..."Oh, same old Alex. What a bust." It's such an emotional response that it just can't be taken seriously. The offense has been a lot better since he took over. On a separate note. After watching tonight's game vs the Bears I would just like to say that I AM SO DAMN SICK OF CONSERVATIVE COACHING. I was tired of MOOCH, I was tired of ERICKSON, I was tired of NOLAN, and SINGLETARY is really starting to bug me with this crap!!! GO FOR THE WIN WHEN IT COUNTS!!!!
Date: November 12, 2009 at 1:25 PM
Comment: Just wanted to get this in cuz starting 2morrow i might not get 2 use the P word again this yr. What a W 2nite means to me. it means hope, it means life in a miracle. reason 4 us to all still fight about something. Look at the schedule: W 2nite (shld be) (btw shout out 2 a former HS teammate OG Josh Beekman of amsterdam high!). @ GB: something tells me they will be ready, i don't know why but that line is so horrible and the D doesn't strike fear, W. Home for Jax: gotta win home games against .500 teams, nothing saying we CAN'T win that game, W. @ SEA: no reason we can't go into Sea n win, maybe at this point the line has come to be and alex is lookin good! (remember this is hope) W. Vs Zona, 9ers are hot, show up big on prime time (no pun intended Deion), W. @ philly: the philly fans a bit too wild, 9ers brought back down to earth, L. VS Det, playin for the playoffs... come on, W. @ STL to steal the division and go 6-0.... WIN.... 49ers HOST a playoff game...... Now, the chances of that happening, i know. But my best friend just won a radio contest yest in albany NY to interview Metallica, our boyhood heroes, before their concert 2nite, dreams come true, and come on, this was fun, right!!!
Date: November 11, 2009 at 10:29 PM
Comment: I think many have their facts a bit skewed...saying Alex has had three full years on the field. Let's examine that statement...for starters, he was thrown to the lions/wolves (take your pick) on a horrible 2005 team. 2006 he showed a lot of progress under Turner. 2007 was abysmal...very little of it his fault. You try playing with a separated shoulder. 2008 he was on IR. This season he's had 2 1/2 games. I'm not sure how that qualifies as 3 full seasons. Be that as it may, I'm not giving up on him yet. He's a lot more confident now...and is making better throws. To judge him after just 2 1/2 games is premature. Oh sure, it's "convenient" and makes arguably "good press" to say he's a bust. Maybe he is, but maybe...just maybe, given all the crap he's been through in his still young NFL career, he's not. Maybe he can still be the one to lead this team. Like Mike Martz, a pretty good judge of QB's, I'll give Alex 'til the end of this season to prove what he's got...or not.
Date: November 11, 2009 at 9:29 PM
Comment: What's up Jeff. 2 comments: you can't fault a guy, rip a guy or call out a guy on his team loyalty for telling it the way it is. that's nonsense. i encourage u to keep up the good work and when the 9ers actually start moving in the right direction i'll look forward to reading something positive. Hell if u ever got a chance i wld love to read a J.K. article from say the mid 90s, see what that looks like! so my advice, you want sunshine blown up your ass check out 49ers.com where we are always ready to take the next step! i come here 2 read reality. 2. i'm not ready to mail it on smith just yet. last sunday made me sick, and i'm not big on excuses but i am big on being fair. n i wld tell all 9er fans just give this kid a fair shake for the next 8 games. i think these next 8 games really start to tell the story. This is a guy who has never had the same Coord 2 years in a row, that's not an excuse that's just tuff. he has had some TERRIBLE ones. Nolan nearly ended his career the way he handled that injury and smith also played on one of the worst Os EVER. so again not big on excuses, wldnt even say i'm a huge smith fan but i'm a huge 9ers fan and he is our QB, so for the next 8 wks i'm 100% smith.
Date: November 11, 2009 at 12:49 PM
Comment: I agree with Bill...it's almost like my fellow Niner fans are so content with losing, that they are trying to make a Bentley out of a Honda! Alex Smith will NEVER be a great QB. People please wake up. It's like we are all expecting this miracle to happen and all of a sudden Alex becomes the next Montana. Any other team would have cut this guy by now. Are we so desperate that we can't see the obvious anymore? 5 years wasted people...5 years!
Date: November 10, 2009 at 9:04 PM
Comment: First I have been a 49er fan since I first started watching football in the early 90s. I have been with them through the superbowl and the many playoff years and also been with them through several rebuilding years. My take on this year is this and that is you have to evaluate the whole team. Starting with Singletary he has done a fine job with getting the team up to play every single game but the falcon game. We have seen that he is willing to adjust the offense and if someone is struggling, to replace that player. But I do think that not having experience with the x and o's has hurt some. But in my opinion coach singletary will continue to get better. Next, offensive coordinator Raye, there have been several games where we didn't take advantage of certain match ups because we tried to run the football and the box was stacked. I do believe that the playcalling will get better. On the offense side of the ball we are in a wait and see mode with alex smith and we will find in these next eight games if he is our franchise qb.
Date: November 10, 2009 at 5:52 PM
Comment: Alex doesn't need "time to develop." He's had five years to "develop." Alex is the same Alex. He'll always be the same Alex. After three years of actual playtime and two years of sitting on the pine -- you would hope that he might show you something different. He didn't. Same old Alex. Pick, pick and pick again. I don't understand the support for Alex Smith among Niner fans. I really don't. We have to be the most forgiving fans on the planet. I mean we were ready to burn effigies of JTO after his eight game tryout nightmare last season. Now here comes Alex Smith. FIVE YEARS OF ALEX SMITH. And we still get the same old apologists who cry for more time, or the offensive line isn't quite right, or he hasn't had much luck with coordinators, or the defense let him down, or his receivers let him down, or there was too much sugar in his Trix Cereal. Enough already! Cut the dude. He's not the answer. Move on! But no. We're gonna have another wasted season. And, if Mr. Smith plays his act to form -- he'll win three in a row at the end and get everyone all hot and bothered. Then, next season, we'll finish 5-11. Again. Another year wasted.
Date: November 10, 2009 at 5:37 PM
Comment: You're such a pessimist and I can't stand reading any of your articles. I really wish someone on the all knowing webzone staff would enlist actual fans to write articles and not debbie downers like this loser.
Date: November 10, 2009 at 5:17 PM
Comment: man is it hard keeping my faith, i've been a niners fan for 25 years. The first 4 losses are understandable, vikings, falcons, texans, then colts, but titans is when i revisited the lack of confidence this team has shown for 7 straight seasons. I like singletary a lot but i think we really need a proven head coach, gruden, shanahan, etc. Now vernon shooting his mouth off about the bears D, almost assures us a loss this thursday, I'm tired of hearing the whole team shooting their mouth off, only way we might get into the playoffs is winning 6 out of our next 8, i really don't think it's possible. My guess is the team will turn it on maybe winning 3 of our last 5 to give us fans more false hope for next year. My point is i'm outraged at ownership, they have had way too much support from us fans, it's time to give back, i suggest we don't buy another ticket, and people like me that have to get games on directv stop buying it so we can starve them back!!!!!
Date: November 10, 2009 at 12:38 PM
Comment: I like Alex Smith. Let's give him some time to grow, he hasn't had as much time as people think. Two of his years were injured, so he's still in the learning stage. Let's give this year to Alex and see where he takes us. Then Alex and Nate Davis can compete for the starting job next year. Let's use this year and next year to develop N.Davis and give A.Smith a chance to make or break himself. Meanwhile let's draft or sign good Off/Line, and receivers. We'll keep building and developing, next year we'll make the playoffs, following year we'll go deeper into the playoffs, if not win... I believe this is the way to build a Super Bowl team.
Date: November 10, 2009 at 11:59 AM
Comment: Smith completed 64.4% of his passes Jeff. If he were really telegraphing his passes that much, he wouldn't have such a high completion percentage. He hasn't done it that much this year. I watch football almost every Sunday and without fail, passes get tipped. It is LUCK or lack thereof that determines where the ball goes once it's tipped. If it's tipped out of bounds, or falls right to the ground, you don't give it a second thought. You're blaming Smith for the bounce of the ball. It makes sense to blame a QB when he throws into double coverage, or when he throws it directly to a defender, but not on a couple of lucky bounces for the Titans. I blame him for the one he threw directly to Hope, but ALL quarterbacks throw interceptions. I think that guy Brees threw a couple too. One last thing to think about. One of the greatest plays of all time, the immaculate reception came on a tipped ball. You don't hear people criticizing Bradshaw for the tip now do you? The end result was different and that's exactly my point.
By: Nick S.
Date: November 10, 2009 at 10:28 AM
Comment: Ah, you are right. I stand corrected. Still, I think Smith was decent, not great by any means. The defense made just as many mistakes. I think it is unfair to put the loss on Smith really. Do you think the 49ers should play conservative on Thursday? With more carries for Frank?
Date: November 10, 2009 at 10:19 AM
Comment: You never let the facts get in the way of your opinion do you Jeff. Smith did not play poorly. You people must have bipolar disorder or something. The sky is ALWAYS falling with you. Smith throws a pick..."Oh my god I knew he was a bust!" "Same old Alex!" "9/11 was an inside job!" That's right, don't let facts get in the way of your opinion. 2 of the picks were NOT Smith's fault. 1 was, it happens, GET OVER IT. Smith can't control what happens when the ball is tipped straight into the air. You could only blame it on Alex if you lack the ability to analyze what happened and think critically.
By: Nick S.
Date: November 10, 2009 at 9:49 AM
Comment: Jeff, blaming the fumble on Smith when he's working with a makeshift o-line? C'mon man. Brady, Romo, Sanchez, and McNabb have all fumbled the ball this season in similar situations... and that's just off the top of my head. They call it "the blind side" for a reason.
Date: November 10, 2009 at 8:26 AM
Comment: If Alex Smith could throw the ball to his receivers, he may have a chance. He cannot connect with one of his KEY receivers, Michael CRABTREE! He is wide open right off the line more than half the time, and has the ability to make some really good plays. Another name, VERNON DAVIS... You can never go wrong! He will catch the ball 9 times out of 10 in the end zone especially, why not use him?! Alex is too worried about looking right in front of him, he needs to use the field, and broaden his horizon! Shaun Hill connected with Crabtree on more than one occasion, he has an off game and see ya... Give him a chance to show what he can do, Alex has had years to prove himself and NOTHING has come out of it but a LOSING record!!!! Singletary has made some crazy decisions, and I don't think anyone knows where he's going with them. Maybe he and Jimmy Raye both need a reality check... Hello, Frank Gore cannot run up the middle EVERY play either. Use him too, he can get down the field on a short pass towards the sideline or even a handoff... Up the middle when we need work on our offensive line gets us NOWHERE! 3 yard rushes aren't getting us in the END ZONE! Niners need a MAJOR MAKEOVER!
Date: November 10, 2009 at 7:22 AM
Comment: One thing I still do not understand is why pull Hill after two bad games? Why didn't he try the spread offense with Hill? Records do not lie. He still has a winning record and now Smith's record is something like 11-21? There is something about Alex Smith that Singletary is "trying" to see that the rest of us just do not. He had a good half in Houston, YAY! Shaun Hill earned the starting job and should be allowed to play a season and see where he can take us. No, he was not going to win every single game. Young and Montana both had a few bad games. Can you imagine if coaches pulled QB's like they do now? You have to give someone a chance. Alex has had his for years now...give this team back to Shaun and let him finish this for us. PLEASE!