It wouldn't be enough. The most electrifying game by a Niner quarterback since our long-forgotten heroes of a long-forgotten era (the years B.A., Before Alex). But it wouldn't be enough.
Still wildly undisciplined, we'd just committed our 14th penalty, and this one was clearly the worst. Sure, we'd already wiped out two touchdowns of ours, and three flags helped the Rams score one of their own. But now, late in the game and down by four, we'd just wiped out our THIRD score, a spectacular 43-yard touchdown pass, nullified by a holding call on our left tackle. (A left tackle with a broken leg, but still.) With the game in the balance, along with what little remained of the season, it was third-and-32.
Troy Smith had been magnificent. But it wouldn't be enough.
After Smith saved the game in London, Mike Johnson promised to open the offense, at least "a little bit." That promise was borne of necessity, of course--all those still supporting Mike Singletary's run-first lunacy, please see yourselves out--but it was encouraged by Smith's particular skills. Whereas Alex was always so damned afraid, bailing out at the first sign of trouble, Troy had that swagger, that moxie, whatever. Alex would feel the rush and run for the hills; by contrast, Troy would move but focus downfield, never giving up on a play.
"He's a playmaker," as Vernon Davis would put it. "He's not afraid to let the ball go." And despite Singletary's just-punt-it approach, Johnson, it seemed, would encourage him. Smith himself didn't hesitate to raise expectations: "We will do some things, hopefully, that will be eyebrow-raising for you."
Of course, we'd heard some similar promises before. But now, with Smith, the Niners delivered.
Including the first, a 32-yard strike to Davis, Smith made play after play after play, and made each one the very same way. He moved out of the path of the Rams' many blitzes, waited for his targets to find the deep gaps in the Rams' strung-out secondary, and fired startlingly accurate passes. Sure, that style of hangin' in there--of extending the play to the very last tick--was partly why he was hit with five sacks; not all were the fault of Kwame-imposter Anthony Davis. But it was ENTIRELY why he made all those big plays. Distributing the ball with remarkable equity, he'd finish with an astonishing 13 yards per attempt and 21 per completion, while racking up 356 yards and a rating near 117.
Reporters scrambled through their media guides to find the last time a Niner QB played a game like this. Needless to say, they didn't find one from Alex Smith, whose Niners career at last was over.
Of course, there was still the matter of this must-win game.
Which, by the way, we were losing.
Despite Troy's heroics, we were stuck on only 13 points. Sure, the penalties hurt. But even with Johnson's more aggressive approach, this still, alas, was Singletary's team. On three straight drives in the second and third, our last four plays were run, run, pass, punt. After those, our NEXT three drives all went three-and-out. And as different as the Troy era seems, let's not look past the decidedly Alex-y third-down "success rate": by the end, oh for 11.
And despite Troy's heroics, here we were. Third-and-32. Season on the line.
We hadn't seen ANYTHING yet.
Having already thrown three TD passes that didn't count, Smith had every reason to throw up his hands and call it a day. After all, as he'd put it, "There's not too many plays in the playbook where you say, 'This is for third-and-35.' " So, naturally, he and Frank Gore decided to invent one. Smith looked for Gore along the left sideline, and Gore took a short pass 14 yards, setting up an equally impossible fourth-and-18. So Smith and Gore ran the same play AGAIN, but deeper this time, and gained 22. And before you could put your eyebrows (and jaw) back in place, once again Smith dodged the pressure and fired a strike, to Michael Crabtree for the touchdown. (And THIS time, no flags.)
Of course, we weren't out of the woods. Though our D had done well to keep us close, it isn't known for sealing the deal. The Rams drove for the tying score, and when they won the toss, it looked like death. But the D came up with a three-and-out, and Gore (and, to be fair, a questionable PI call) took care of the rest.
And so Smith did enough after all. Enough to win a game that was lost. But also enough to make you believe.
Afterward, Singletary seemed to be wrestling with a strange contradiction: by luck, fate, or the cross he wears, he'd stumbled into Smith, but Smith's success only proves his irrelevance. Though praising Smith, he couldn't help but stick to his empty guns, as if to remind us he's still here for some reason. "I like it when it works," he said, gently poo-pooing Smith's aggressive (modern? effective?) style. But Gore spoke as if he'd seen the New World, and now there was no going back. "It's nice to be dangerous, really dangerous." You said it, Frank. Sorry the journey took so long.
Let's pause for some perspective, though. We're three-and-six, still tied for last. We still make way too many mistakes, and now the offensive line is a mess. Stay grounded. Even here in the NFC West, the playoffs are still a very long shot.
But we saw something Sunday. Something only vaguely familiar.
What's it called again? Oh yes, that's it.
"A lot of [quarterbacks] can play when things go like the coaches say they will," Paul Hackett once said. "The great ones can adapt. The great ones can keep a team's head above water when everything is turning to shit out there."
Troy Smith is just two starts into his Niners career, and it's much too early to pronounce him great. But it doesn't get much shittier than third-and-32, season on the line. And no matter what should become of this year, let's never forget what we saw in that moment. What we haven't seen for a very long time.
Date: November 22, 2010 at 2:06 AM
Comment: 148 yds and 1 int. Passer rating of "Alex Smith quality". Had this actually been Alex Smith passing the ball everyone would be crying out..... What makes anyone on this board think that all the great coaching staffs in the NFL (not us) would pass on a potential great QB?
Date: November 21, 2010 at 4:55 PM
Comment: Jeff, can you do me a favor, in your next article please explain why we should keep Sing as a HC. I'm serious, there must be a good reason, and not just to lose games so we have a high draft pick next year. When i watch him on the sidelines it's like watching a monkey yapping and hollering gibberish. In the Bucs game he was going nuts because he couldn't call a time out. If you can't figure out how to call a time out without hollering and yapping gibberish WE GOT A PROBLEM! Why does this guy have such a problem calling a simple time out? I'm serious, can a reporter ask him this question because i can't figure this monkey out. Please tell me he is smarter than this. I need to have hope. I don't have as much faith in God as Sing has.
By: Marc Ward
Date: November 21, 2010 at 4:48 PM
Comment: It doesn't get much shittier than getting shut out at home for the first time since 1977.
Date: November 20, 2010 at 1:14 AM
Comment: Good article and my sentiments exactly. I felt something watching niner football I hadn't felt for god knows how long when Troy pulled a rabbit out of the hat and beat the lambs...that no matter how dire the situation, we were going to prevail, and notch up a win...hopefully, this is a sign of the tide changing...go niners.
Date: November 18, 2010 at 4:21 AM
Comment: Hey Jeff, very interesting and entertaining article - thanks. I'm a UK Niner fan of 25 years and used to listen to the games on AFN radio broadcasts from Germany. I used to balance my radio on a can of beans on the stairs to get decent reception, and can remember literally shaking with nervousness and excitement listening to the greats of the past trying to win games in the last few minutes. Well you know what? After suffering for the last few years I feel it again... EXCITEMENT!!! However long it lasts I'll take it (and thanks to all the others for their comments - I almost feel part of it!)
Date: November 18, 2010 at 1:15 AM
Comment: my god man, you are learning to write interesting stuff. only twice did you let the sportsguy - haterism leak out. I am impressed. keep writing stuff like this. This was better than the stuff the other guys who make the big bucks write. oh yeah, you guys have to remember. if you can tear sing down when we fail, you can give him some props when he figures it out. he put these pieces together, he believed when none of us did. he did what he had to do to finally dump alex smith. some of you guys are slow picking up this pattern. catch up to this new world.
Date: November 17, 2010 at 11:34 PM
Comment: We've had more than our share of "flash in the pan" QBs the past couple of decades. The big difference is this: Those QBs for the most part had already demonstrated performance failures elsewhere, usually for more than one team. Or they never really showed an ability to compete at an NFL level in real play. Troy Smith, like Frank Gore, was a major talent that never really developed because of medical problems. Not performance failure. Physical/medical restrictions. So hopefully, with the medical problems behind him, like Gore he'll be successful and we'll benefit from his previous bad luck. That 3rd and 32 was very telling. It was the kind of thing Montana or Young would have been expected to pull out (whether they actually did or not), but in reality no other Niner QB since Montana or Young would have been. There is an intangible that all the great quarterbacks have...and the more they have it, the greater they turn out to be. It sounds stupid and seems obvious, but they just find a way to win. It can be ugly as hell, but they find a way to win, and they never lose their poise. So far, Troy Smith looks like he maybe has that intangible. Time will tell.
Date: November 17, 2010 at 11:37 AM
Comment: Nice piece, very passionate, haven't read a story about my team like that in awhile, soak it up though every fairy tale has an ending.
Date: November 17, 2010 at 10:13 AM
Comment: The following question is somewhat off the topic of this article, but one that I think needs asking (and something that you've briefly touched on in some of your other pieces): what credible coach or GM would want to work for the Yorks? When they first made their presence felt, the Yorks were viewed as tightwads and more than a little incompetent. Since then, they've loosened up the purse strings (the list and price tag of some of the free agents they've signed is impressive, with Justin Smith, Clements, and Lewis, et al), but they still come off as doofuses (reference the statement by Jed that we still have a shot at the playoffs as the most recent example). We don't have a GM, and our coach is on the way out (pleeeeeeeease let him be on the way out). Is our ownership one that will actually attract top coaching and management talent, or are we going to plumb the depths of the college ranks and suffer another 4 years of misery?
By: STL Niner Fan
Date: November 17, 2010 at 9:18 AM
Comment: Based on our recent history we should all be expecting the rug to get pulled out from beneath our feet soon enough. But in the meantime I am going to enjoy watching this kid play. His strengths (so far) are the total opposite of Alex's weaknesses. He is an accurate, strong-armed QB who is able to elude pressure long enough to make something happen. Instead of rolling out to his right and flinging it out of bounds to evade pressure he steps up in the pocket and at least tries to deliver a strike. He is not afraid to throw to a seemingly covered receiver. Many have stated he is too risky but I think that is short-sighted. If you really watch the good QB's play in today's game you'll note that many of their completions are to receivers who are seemingly covered. The margin for error and success in this game is razor-thin. If you never take the chance that your receiver will outfight his coverage to make the catch...well, then you're probably not going to make many completions, throw many TD's, etc. What is amazing to me is that he has played only two games for us in his career and already looks better than Alex ever has. As a once-upon-a-time 3rd-stringer, that's something.
Date: November 16, 2010 at 7:49 PM
Comment: Let's not get too giddy, fans. NFL history (and 49er history) has seen many flash-in-the-pan great performances from back-up QBs that eventually don't make the grade. I too loved watching the 49ers display a real offensive offense, but it was against the Rams and it was a QB that was a surprise to the opposing defense and everyone else, including his own team! I'd trade Troy Smith, Frank Gore, and Vernon Davis for Sam Bradford in an instant. The thing that scares me the most is that Jed and his parents will think.......... (I can't even get myself to type it, but you know, you know.)
Date: November 16, 2010 at 6:54 PM
Comment: We need the penalties to slow down for sure! But, we still pulled out a win after being down twice, Troy seems good under pressure, if we cut down on the penalties, and our Def. starts playing better (like we know they can), then this will be a good football team. We also need to start converting on 3rd down, but I'm afraid in order to win the division we would need to go 6-1, it appears almost impossible with San Diego, Green Bay, and Tampa Bay on the schedule, but it is the NFL, anything can happen I suppose.
Date: November 16, 2010 at 4:20 PM
Comment: I'm surprised no one has likened Troy to Steve Young! I haven't felt thrills like this since Steve came on the stage. Man am I excited again... I had forgotten how good it felt! Great article. I agree with every word!
Date: November 16, 2010 at 1:42 PM
Comment: I'm not ready to call T. Smith the next JoMo. But he looked darn good. Surprisingly accurate in the game and wasn't afraid to take chances. That said, Troy has some areas that need improvement as does the team. 14 penalties will lose you the game more times than not. That needs to be cleaned up ASAP. The sack total needs to go down for sure. 5 is too many, let go of the ball kid. However, the only reason we got any big plays was BECAUSE he held the ball. One big thing you didn't mention here Jeff, the turnovers. We committed 0! It's plagued us all season. We committed none this week and came away with a W. Bottom line. Clean up the penalties and we at least have a chance at the West if T. Smith can play close to the level he played Sunday.
Date: November 16, 2010 at 1:24 PM
Comment: Hi Jeff, Great article, as usual (do you ever get tired of reading that?). Three key phrases from it: 1) ...not all were the fault of Kwame-imposter Anthony Davis. (Why did we draft him, again? Didn't he have work-ethic issues? Human turnstile/holding machine.) 2) ...but Smith's success only proves [Singletary's] irrelevance. (No kidding--what exactly does he do, besides collect a paycheck and burn all of our timeouts 4 minutes into a half?) 3) ...he couldn't help but stick to his empty guns... (The ammunition of those guns, credibility, has long since been spent. As a fan, I long for bluntness. Singletary knows he's screwed, so why not be forthright about the shortcomings of the team rather than stating repeatedly that things will get better soon [and sweet Jesus, don't tell me he anticipated Troy's success. This was a total shot in the dark].) I was curious after Troy's win in LimeyLand, and am now downright impressed after seeing the highlights of Sunday's game (our local Fox affiliate refuses to air 49er games). A larger sample size is needed before we give him the job permanently, but I am now a little more upbeat about our prospects.
Date: November 16, 2010 at 12:16 PM
Comment: When evaluating talent, scouts often forget about actual performance. All Troy Smith did in college was win and he was often the reason why OSU won as much as they did during his tenure as QB, much to my dismay. It reminds me of Brady, Brees and Flutie, who succeeded despite what the scouts said. But if he plays well enough, don't you think Singletary will take credit for playing Smith, especially if they are able to salvage the season and go 8-8?
Date: November 16, 2010 at 11:23 AM
Comment: Great article....I always appreciate honesty and speaking from the heart in terms of what the reality is for the Niners. I hadn't been that stressed out over a 49ers game since Garcia was at the helm. I don't want to get my hopes up too early but Troy Smith has shown that "IT" factor that I haven't seen from our QBs since Young played. He plays with the utmost confidence in his WRs whereas Alex is too afraid to gun it consistently to covered receivers and give them a chance to get the ball. Did anyone see Troy's face to Crabtree after his last TD throw to him w/2 min left? That face shows the epitome of killer instinct. Something we've been lacking from Alex for 5 years. Keep the FAITH!
Date: November 16, 2010 at 11:17 AM
Comment: Fantastic article, Jeff. You hit it on the head, only two games out of Smith, yet we've seen something on this team we haven't seen in a decade. A QB that makes plays when it matters most, he didn't make all the plays but he made enough to win the game. That's what makes a QB great, not saying after 2 games that Troy is great, but he's given this team a spark and if he keeps playing like what we've seen, this organization better not make the mistake of letting him walk.
Date: November 16, 2010 at 11:06 AM
Comment: Well said! Troy Smith has what Alex Smith doesn't.......POISE. The respect that the team had for Alex was a default praise. They knew that he was all we had and maybe, possibly he would come around and somehow step up. I was a huge Alex Smith backer and now I am no more. Anyone who would back Alex Smith now is completely clueless. Same offensive line, same receivers, same COACH. Troy Smith is a poor man's Mike Vick, right now. Give him some time in our system to build chemistry with the weapons we have and you'll see GREATNESS.
Date: November 16, 2010 at 10:33 AM
Comment: Bravo! A great article! :)
Date: November 16, 2010 at 10:10 AM
Comment: That game was worth watching, even with all the penalties. The officials were calling them pretty tight, but I can't complain. The last penalty gave us the game.