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Smith Makes His Pitch, and the Niners Explode

Oct 9, 2012 at 6:36 AM23

Funny thing, inspiration.

It's one of life's great mysteries. How is inspiration born? What is it that induces us, once in all-too-long a while, to rise beyond our usual limits? How is it that we can simply become, at least for one split-second in time, better than we usually are? And once it comes, where does it go?

There isn't just one answer, of course, and this only deepens the mystery. Necessity might be the mother of invention, but inspiration's got a deadbeat dad. What is it? Love, maybe? How about hate? Fear might work, but don't forget about desperation. The strange truth is that it can come from anything—inspiration merely appears, when skill and emotion intersect at a perfect angle with the task at hand. The trick isn't so much to explain it; the trick instead is to capture it, and just hold on, as long as you can.

Not that you asked, but here's my theory: for Alex Smith, it began with a pitch.

On Saturday night, Smith went out to throw the first pitch at AT&T. He got a nice ovation as he strode to the top of the mound; this showed just how far he'd come, since this was much of the same crowd who'd famously chanted for David Carr. Smith took in the applause, did a showy wind-up, and then uncorked a 50-foot duck, low and outside, which sent the catcher scurrying. Fortunately, the crowd showed mercy, cheering as he raised his arms in sarcastic triumph. But the reporting was notable for the indications that Smith, afterward, was sincerely pissed.

Of course, Smith is well past worrying about the ravings of the blogosphere; indeed, when it comes to shutting out the critics and soldiering on, he's about as good as there's ever been. But I've gotta believe he could sense the snark as soon as he let that pitch hit the dirt. "Just what I need," he must've thought. "Now I can't throw deep in two sports."

They say, though, that disappointment is disguised opportunity. And opportunity, thy name is Buffalo.

The previous week, the Bills had given up 52 points and nearly 600 yards. Those were the Patriots doing the shellacking, but even the awful Jets had put up 48 and nearly 400. Tom Brady and Mark Sanchez had each thrown for 3 TDs, and each had notched a rating of 120.

With maybe some extra motivation, Smith would follow suit, and more.

Smith went deep on the game's third play, though the gain was wiped out by a penalty. Undeterred, he just kept going, hitting Vernon Davis on a throw that went 40 yards through the air. We settled for a field goal when our ballyhooed jumbo-package failed for roughly the millionth time, and halfway through the second quarter the score was stuck at three to three. But then, a breakthrough: a short pass that Michael Crabtree turned into a 36-yard gain, and another bomb to Kyle Williams for the score. That's three 30-yard pass-plays, the Niners' first such plays all year. One more deep one just before halftime, and pretty much the game was over.

For the half, Smith was 12 of 15 for 237 yards and 2 scores. (He'd later add a third, to take his place atop the leaders in quarterback rating.) And from there, of course, the running game ground down the Bills' will, completing the greatest offensive script in the history of the league. Much as they did in the good old days, the Niners used the passing game to seize the lead, and the running game to keep it. But talk about balance: 300 yards both passing and running, for the first (and likely last) time anywhere. And talk about efficiency: 10 yards gained per each and every offensive snap.

And yeah, talk about explosiveness.

How do we go about explaining this? For two weeks, the passing game had been dead, just dead. And now, out of the blue, this long-rumored but never-sighted explosiveness, which, if sustained and coupled with this soul-crushing running game, would make this offense unstoppable. Where on earth did it come from?

We should start by again acknowledging we were playing the Bills. My word, do they stink. Only rarely did Smith ever face any pressure, and his deep receivers were absurdly wide-open. It's tempting to declare that we're now officially an explosive O; but Jets fans likely said the same thing.

On the other hand, previously, Smith had looked like he couldn't connect on a deep pass against a defense of empty chairs. Something now seemed substantially different, and naturally Smith was asked to explain. "[Throwing deep had always] been a priority for us," he insisted, all evidence to the contrary. "There were some shots last week that didn't happen because of how they [meaning the Jets?] were playing. Today, they came up, we took them and were a little more aggressive." I don't know how much of that I'm willing to buy, but I'll definitely buy the final word.

As the Niners piled up win after win, last year and into this one, I was often asked what more I could want. My answer was always the same, more or less. Aggressiveness. Using the available weapons to their greatest extent, making the most of every snap, leaving no big plays on the field. That's the mark of a champion. Oh, no doubt, 13-and-3 is perfectly nice. But in the playoffs, where margins of error are razor-thin, aggressiveness makes all the difference.

At least for a single game, aggressiveness is nothing new. Indeed, last year, we saw much the same thing: we got to 4-and-1 by using a pass-first scheme to throttle the Bucs, 48 to 3. The task now is to sustain this approach. Whether we will—and, yes, whether Smith can—remains to be seen.

Yet it wouldn't be fair to deny Smith this moment. You just can't keep up with this guy. In seemingly equal measure, alternating week by week, he fuels the critics and rewards the faithful. Every time you think he's fading, back he comes again with a vengeance. But never more impressively than this time. This time, see, he wasn't just good. He seemed instead to be something more, something even better than good.

Clearly, Alex Smith was inspired.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


  • shane
    hahahahaha, just saw the Harbaugh, Jacobs iron it out article... think it went something like this.... Harbaugh: "we are a team here, not individuals. Talk out again we are trading you to the bills!"
    Oct 11, 2012 at 5:22 PM
  • shane
    Jeff, nothing wrong with that my man. You raise a very fair point. there is no denying that jacobs looked good in the preseason, i believe he was 4-4 in short yardage (or close to). Frankly, I dont have the numbers on the season but youre right it doesnt feel like we have gotten much better on 3rd and short, or goal line. i often wonder if the Jumbo package hurts more than it helps. it gives almost no threat of a pass, and now not only is there 1200-1500lbs crashing down on the line but an extra 600-1000lbs in front of you. how the hell do you hit a hole? its like a car crash.... but my original fear is that if Jacobs cant fix the short yardage problems, or even does to some extent, how much is enough to erase the fact he could be a cancer in the locker room and maybe the one guy Harbaugh cant control. this was the same guy bitching and complaining when his team was winning SBs! for the record i HOPE i eat crow on this!
    Oct 11, 2012 at 5:13 PM
  • Fresniner
    Alex Smith isn't the QB the Niners want, but he is the one that they deserve. Because he's not an elite QB. He's a silent playmaker. A watchful manager. A Red and Gold Knight....
    Oct 11, 2012 at 8:58 AM
    Response: Best...comment...ever....
  • Shane
    Hey Jeff, you are right, everyone agreeing in sweet harmony just wouldnt be any fun haha. Suggestion, maybe post ppl by email address (but thats prob illegal!). anyway, on to football. Trust me, no one was happier last weekend than me, that is fun football! However, Im a realist. Alex is not elite, he is not a top 8 QB in this league. This is a BUF D that wld get smoked playing Div II college teams. They have allowed back to back record breaking performances. Things that have NVR happened before in back to back games. as you noted, the JETS dropped 48 on them!! thats outrageous. Frankly, i dont think the G-men D is much of a big "test" either but at least they are a pro team. Im not saying alex is garbage, i think we can win a SB with him, we shld have last yr. But i just think there are a lot of 9er fans who are currently prisoners of the moment. also, i wonder how many wld agree, at this point lets just admit the best thing to do is just eat the jacobs contract and cut that guy. We have more than enough people to run the ball and he is not a team guy. He is already bitching. If he was doing, dare i say, what Randy Moss was doing that would be fine. But this guy is still doing the same garbage he did in NY and its only gonna get worse. lets just eat that one and move on.
    Oct 11, 2012 at 8:09 AM
    Response: Continuing on the theme of respectful disagreement, Shane, I'd still like to get Jacobs on the field, and my only reason is that we still haven't solved our third-and-short problem. If Dixon were a capable third-and-short guy, then sure, keep him (for his special-teams value) and cut Jacobs. But Dixon isn't, and in the preseason Jacobs looked like an absolute beast. I get it, it's not easy to dress a guy just to play on third-and-short; but it's a crucial role, and he's still likely our best option there.
  • Terry B.
    It's not, Ken. That's just the AJ argumentation technique. When he has no response to what you say, he just pretends that you said something else. For instance, when I claimed to have never said that Harbaugh was a bad coach or that the 49ers were doomed, AJ responded with, "what do you mean you never criticized me?" and then provided examples of when I criticized him. This sort of thing would get you kicked out of freshman debate club, but I guess it flies on webzone. Oh, and AJ lies as much as Mitt Romney, too. Now he's claiming to really enjoy reading Kaplan's stuff. Just as Romney expects us to forget the past 18 months, AJ expects us to forget the entire Singletary era.
    Oct 11, 2012 at 7:50 AM
  • Ken
    Wait, how is what Terry B. said talking smack about AJ's dad?
    Oct 11, 2012 at 7:45 AM
  • Legbreaker aka the real AJ Bolino
    Great piece bro. We may not always agree (especially about Alex) but you can write, amigo. I really enjoy reading your stuff (even the ones I disagree with). Thanks for commenting, Terry! You're the most awesome guy ever. Seriously. If I ever have another kid, I'm gonna name him Terry. On the real, yo. Have an awesome day, and please feel free to talk all the smack you want about me, my Dad, or what I write. Hugs n' Sloppy Kisses, Legbreaker
    Oct 10, 2012 at 1:06 PM
    Response: Thanks, AJ. And hey, if it weren't for disagreement--preferably RESPECTFUL disagreement--things around here would be dreadfully boring, don't you think?
  • AJ Bolino
    Whoo hoo! Another victory. We rule! Arrow Up! Alex is the bestest QB ever! Zone blocking! We kicked ass AND took their lunch money! I know PFT just said that, and it sounds like I ripped it off, but actually my Dad said that. Oh, and my imaginary friend Big Mike has a dad who says that too.
    Oct 10, 2012 at 7:43 AM
    Response: And predictably, the original Terry B. emerges. Can we all agree to just be ourselves here, gang?
  • Terry B.
    Everybody acts like Alex isn't the same loser he's always been. One halfway decent performance doesn't make him Drew Brees. The 49ers are getting lucky facing injured teams and that's all it is. Until Jed grows some and goes out and gets a real quarterback the 49ers will be nothing but imposters. They missed their chance when Peyton left them standing there with their pants around their ankles.
    Oct 9, 2012 at 10:31 PM
    Response: Okay, um, just so we're clear, that SOUNDS like the original Terry B., but it's actually the NEW Terry B. (It's getting complicated around here....)
  • ENZO
    No we're not expecting AS to start airing out every chance he gets but we would like 2 see consistency week in and week out in terms of our pass plays. He's familiar with the Offense & having the same coordinator 2 yrs in a row, he worked on his throwing mechanics during the offseason, and he got an abundant supply of decent receivers. Yet it seems when defensive pressure comes knocking the majority of his passes are to VD with those short passes and Crab in occasional situations. Alex needs to learn to react faster if his initial target is double covered. After the 1st 5 weeks, he's still struggling to find open receivers and that reflects on his ability to go from 1st to 2nd to 3rd read in an open field. I'd like him to build on this week and try to open up the Offense so that he'll have the chemistry down on the timing with other receivers such as Manningham & Moss downfield. So when push comes to shove and opposing defenses manage to contain our ability to run, Alex Smith can be comfortable targeting his receivers beyond 15 yds or so. U can't test ur ability to make plays when u only open up against softer defensive backfields, sometimes we have 2 take chances.
    Oct 9, 2012 at 4:23 PM
  • fireandice51
    Great article! You identified the genius of that game very well, being inspired play as opposed to normal, and the question in everyone's mind is... can he do it against top flight teams on a week to week basis. That is what makes a great QB. This game against the Giants will reveal volumes as to what this offense can do, and, as important to the 49ers' success, what Alex Smith can do.
    Oct 9, 2012 at 3:06 PM
  • mikesf
    Finally! The 49ers get some air attack. While they set the team and league record against the Bills, let us not forget who they have played against. The 49ers continue to keep the game close (too close) before scoring points. Example: they had two downs from the one to score a touchdown and settled for a field goal. The penalties are hurting the team and they need to get this resolved before they challenge the stronger teams such as the Giants coming up. There are other games that they will need to keep focused on but it is one game at a time. I too remain unchanged about the ability of Smith throwing the ball downfield in a continuing manner. If he continues to throw the ball like he did against the Bills, then he may win over the fans like me. Until then, be wary.
    Oct 9, 2012 at 2:15 PM
  • Deborah Q. Downer
    Jeffy, baby, we know what you want! You want Alex Smith to throw for 400 yards and at least 3 TDs a game. Basically, you want another Joe Montana or Steve Young, and he won't give you that every game, so you'll never truly like Alex Smith. Each week, we know you'll take a passive-aggressive dislike for him. I got you figured out like a Jimmy Raye offense, Jeffy!
    Oct 9, 2012 at 11:56 AM
    Response: :)
  • Dan
    Mr. Kaplan you do not need to try and explain why he was excellent! Just enjoy that this was the best offensive output ever put forth by a 49er team! It was led by someone that you have continually seen as "glass half empty." I took this article as more you trying to justify past writings than enjoying some of the surgical precision that does not happen every weekend. Who cares if it was the Bills. They are professional players too. I think you are setting up for next week's writing by almost hoping the Giants knock them back to earth! I hope that is not the case? I'll say it again just like last week.......Game plans are always different. You cannot expect the same thing every week. That is why it is a team sport. The team wins. The team.
    Oct 9, 2012 at 11:40 AM
    Response: For the record, Dan, I'll be rooting for the Niners next week, and every week.
  • Evbeezee
    Well written, Jeff. As a reader, I appreciate that you are willing to heap the praise as well as the skepticism when they are called for. Sometimes I don't agree with your opinions, but I respect your takes and your humility. I will agree that it's wait & see until he does it more consistently but I am encouraged simply by where the passes hit the receivers, not so much by who they were thrown against. I am also very encouraged by Alex's feel for the game in terms of when to throw and when to take off. He has shown tremendous athleticism which is what was advertised when he was drafted.
    Oct 9, 2012 at 11:39 AM
  • Rob
    Smith most probably will never be the qb that you want him to be. But he is the qb that Harbaugh wants him to be and I am satisfied with that. Smith's average game is going to be around 220 yards passing, with one or two touchdowns and an average of less than one interception per game. He is going to make decisions that give the team the best chance to win the game given the strength of the special teams and defense. I think he is perfect for Harbaugh and this team. The gaudy/fantasy football statistics are not important to Smith, Harbaugh, or the team. So, enjoy this last game, but prepare to be disappointed with efficient, winning quarterbacking from Smith going forward (which I happily expect to be a long time). Hopefully for the team's sake he never gets sucked into the superficial stats that most fans are enamored with.
    Oct 9, 2012 at 10:44 AM
    Oct 9, 2012 at 10:43 AM
  • ENZO
    I really enjoy reading your articles. And Yes, first and foremost our DEFENSE played top notch 2 weeks in a row and on the Offensive side of the ball credit to G-Ro for calling those plays. We didn't have to worry about 3rd down conversions this past week. Alex Smith played his role tremendously against the Bills' questionable Defense. And yes I'm still not buying with AS taking shots downfield. I still feel the Bills were just caught off guard, which again credit goes to our coaching staff. I have to wait to see if Alex can consistently throw passes if he can't make his 1st read and goes through the motions. And the only way to measure that is if he can sustain 3rd downs, move the chains, and spread the ball against very good defensive teams starting with the Giants this week. Then maybe I'll become a believer. I'm not suggesting Colin Kap should start over him, obviously Alex deserved better than anyone else based on last season. We'll see. I am however excited with our team mainly because of our DEFENSE.
    Oct 9, 2012 at 10:33 AM
  • Jesse
    Excellent writing and a good set of points as usual, Jeff. Last week, I thought the team wanted to make a statement about their direction after a really uninspired loss to an inferior but overachieving Vikings team. This week, it would have been totally acceptable to put the thing on cruise control after getting a two touchdown lead, yet they pressed on. It seemed as though Harbaugh and Smith wanted to send a message to the rest of the league that if you think you have this team pegged, you better think again. The Bills are a mess, so there was really no need to bring out all the tricks, so this had a deliberate sense about it. Glad to see some pride exhibited on the field and I definitely do not envy Tom Coughlin's task of putting together a defensive gameplan this week.
    Oct 9, 2012 at 10:27 AM
  • J49er
    Great article! Let's not get carried away with Alex Smith's offensive assault. He threw 3 touchdowns against the Bucs and only ended up with 17 at the end of the year. Until I see this aggressive approach against good teams ie: Patriots, Giants, our division, I'm not buying that Smith has changed at all...not falling for it twice like I did last year.
    Oct 9, 2012 at 8:39 AM
  • Ryan
    Jeff, you clearly were inspired also, for this article came 6 hours earlier than usual! Sunday was awesome, beyond words even. GPS game coming up at the Stick this weekend! #Faithful
    Oct 9, 2012 at 8:37 AM
  • Frank
    Jeff, Alex was on fire were his teammates. Part of it is the playcalling...I think Harbaugh's willing to let him rip it downfield more now than last year. He's in the 2nd year of OC Roman's offense. He has dynamic receivers now...and a very dynamic backfield. The OL is really asserting Alex the confidence he'll have time to get the ball downfield. It all works together.
    Oct 9, 2012 at 8:32 AM
  • Jake
    You might have the biggest knee jerk on the Zone. That is no compliment.
    Oct 9, 2012 at 7:15 AM
    Response: The substance of your critique isn't entirely unfair, Jake, though I think it's just a natural hazard; I think we're all prone to the adage that "you're only as good as your last game," which induces us to give the last game perhaps undue weight in assessing the bigger picture. Still, I've gotta think that if I were just an incorrigible knee-jerker, I would now be saying that the Niners are the best team in the league by 10 miles, that their offense is better than any offense they had in the dynasty days, etc. Instead, as you see, I've encouraged some measure of caution. That doesn't strike me as overly reactive.

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