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Niners Lose to Houston, Win Anyway

Oct 27, 2009 at 6:07 AM

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.
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.


  • Dan
    I like the idea of Alex Smith coming back as a stronger more confident quarterback. I hope it works out like that. He looked a little confused and panicky at times during that last game, but he did ok. Shaun was losing his edge out there so I was wondering what was taking so long to get Alex in there. Teams are going to plan around Smith now however and it will get tougher for him as they learn to rattle him. Note to Alex Smith: get really tough, don't pay any attention to failure, we know you have it in you to be the man. Thanks for the article Jeff, I support the move to Alex Smith as quarterback.
    Oct 29, 2009 at 10:37 AM
  • angel lubidesi
    Alex Smith our starter again and it's probably the best move we've made all season and I tell you one thing, this article is great and I have to say I love it from beginning to end cuz I do believe alex can make our offense really better, matter a fact during sunday's game against houston I was so hyped up when alex smith came in that I threw off my patrick willis jersey and had to wear my alex smith for the rest of the game and it was great to see him do so well so to all loyal niner fans, in alex we should trust so go niners!! And let's get a w sunday.
    Oct 29, 2009 at 8:05 AM
  • Jake R.
    I thought, for at least the two years that Alex has been absent from the field, that I was the only Alex Smith fan in the world... the only one that could truly give him the benefit of the doubt. Now four days removed from a Sunday I will never forget. A Sunday where all of our last seven first-round picks, even Balmer, saw significant action and contributed. But now the bandwagon has started. Now I read that everybody had faith in Alex, he was just so obviously mishandled. Well, those people are the ones that bad-mouthed him since his rookie year. None of those people actually watched him (hell, who wanted to watch the 2005 Niners?), they just looked at his 1-11 TD:INT ratio and have been looking for reasons to call him a bust ever since. Your article is spot-on and had just about everything that I wanted to say about Sunday's game. I felt like you were reading my mind, Jeff. We truly watch the Niners with the same eyes.
    Oct 29, 2009 at 2:57 AM
  • Bill Bird
    OUTSTANDING. I mean OUTSTANDING WORK. This is probably the BEST Op-Ed I've EVER seen written out of any writer with the Webzone. Period. End of story. Hands down. Ze best. I think that you captured the feelings of every single 49er fan on the block with the closing line "Be real, Alex. Please be real." It's comparable to the tagline of "I want to believe." I just realized that I was reading a contribution piece -- not something from a well underpaid journalist. This work could appear anywhere.
    Oct 28, 2009 at 3:17 PM
    Response: I'm grateful, Bill. Thanks so much.
  • ShaneO
    That's great stuff man, thank you for the time. heading out to Indy in the morning with a stop in Ohio to go to the 2 hall of fames, and some downtown Indy for Halloween. doesn't look like i can get the GF to bring the laptop, but maybe i can sneak onto the hotel computer lol. so my focus is now on game day...can't wait i'll be fired up!!
    Oct 28, 2009 at 12:28 PM
    Response: Have fun, Shane. Here's hoping your lone voice is strong enough to cheer the Niners to victory. By the way, I'll give you a nickel if you dress up as Sourdough Sam (WITH HAT) and go trick-or-treating to the other rooms in the hotel. No cheating, though; the GF must take a picture, which you must post on this site.
  • ShaneO
    Thank u 4 the time friend! Special teams, i feel is gonna be mediocre at best this year. i don't think there is a quick fix this year, unless they go to spurlock as you mentioned. prolly not. If you get a moment maybe you can comment on the present and the future at WR. i always enjoy ur honesty and don't believe we will get the same pay Bruce his dues speech. My feelings: Crabs obvious number one and all i can say is TG this guy is working out after all that nonsense. Next you wld assume wld be morgan correct? he has size and speed and POWER, great for a running team on the edge. between him and crabs i think that will be great for running, cuz WR is so underrated in the running game. now here is what SHLD happen. you have jones, he opens the middle and gets paid like a starter, he cld be perfect for the slot. Then Hill who cld be rotated into the slot and used in 4 wide (if we ever use it). sometimes we forget this guy has had to play behind D Jackson, Lelie, Gilmore. i feel like WE OWE HIM a shot. but THIS yr bruce needs to sit. his time is over, i'm sry it's time to develop these kids and he obviously isn't getting open. maybe it's disrespectful but i wanna WIN. let's start Crab n JM!
    Oct 27, 2009 at 8:35 PM
    Response: I agree that Crabtree (our clear #1) and Morgan are our two best receivers, but, at least theoretically, they play the same position, the X. Now how much should that matter? You could argue it shouldn't matter at all; if they're our two best, they should start, right? Maybe, but I'm not quite ready to give up on Bruce as the best fit at the Z. It has nothing to do with paying him his dues; he had a great training camp, he's still got sure hands, he still runs good routes. I'm willing to assume, for now at least, that his lack of production, like everyone's, has been due to the Shaun Hill offense. Of course, if the Alex Smith offense will truly mark a change in philosophy (as I pray it will), who starts at receiver won't matter too much. There'll be plenty of three-receiver sets, so there'll be plenty of plays with Crabtree and Morgan together. When (if?) we go to four receivers, the fourth should be Jones with all the money we're paying; if we're not gonna play him we should cut him immediately. Assuming we're keeping Spurlock and Battle for their special-teams "value," that leaves Hill as the odd man out. I agree it's sad he's been lost in the shuffle, but don't forget: next year, Bruce (and probably Battle) will be gone. If he's patient and keeps working, he might be a valuable guy next year.
  • desert rat
    Too little too late. It's only game six but that Houston loss was more crushing than the Atlanta debacle. Now one game behind, the Cards get the Panthers at home and we go to Indy. We'll be two games out with Chicago and Green Bay coming up. Bottom line is no matter who plays qb the niner offense is boring, mechanical and inefficient. I was hoping this would be a better year but the team falls into the same ole same ole. Fast start, big fade and meaningless victories at the end of the season (rams, lions). I guess we can look forward to trying to sign two top ten picks (thx carolina).
    Oct 27, 2009 at 7:01 PM
  • ShaneO
    Hey Jeff. well i think you hit the nail right on the head. It's odd but there has never been so much optimism in the midst of so much chaos. i don't like this "hou D wasn't at full speed" n they "prepared" for Hill. i'm sinking that. The Pats were up 45-0 n their D didn't give up a point. i know the same gusto isn't there but not all teams quit. plus this WAS a game in the 2nd half. so when the D shlda stepped up Alex still played well. this "we didn't prepare 4 smith" i sink that 2. what I'm excited about is how smith looked. not how the Hou D played. he looked sharp, his balls had zip, he moved very well, he was fast on his reads. it looked real to me bro. I live in NYS and i'm driving to Indy to go to the game. feel ok about it. i think it has upset written on it. it's possible. but yet it all comes down to the line. still a big ? still :-( but the thing that surprises me the MOST is no talk of the return game by anyone! we need explosion! and we cut sheets who cld return kicks and actually contribute for a handful of snaps on the O. yet we still have Spurlock while Jones and Hill are inactive, n we are going with M Rob n Battle. that makes no sense. i wanna hear ur thoughts on the return game.
    Oct 27, 2009 at 3:06 PM
    Response: As I mentioned in the article, Shane, our release of Rossum was simply mystifying. (I know he got hurt on his first return for Dallas, but I'm not gonna assume he'd have gotten hurt here.) Returning kicks is a difficult specialty, so what you want is, naturally, a specialist, and Rossum was one of the best. He wasn't young anymore, but he was coming off one of his best years. And annoyingly, Singletary's explanation--that he wasn't effective in special-teams coverage--was absurd. But whatever the case, you'd think the job would go to Spurlock (is he here as just our Taser guy?), but instead, as you point out, we go with the uninspiring Robinson and Battle, who promptly gives up a score. Yup, I think YOU'VE hit it on the head, my friend. If there's a logic to the decisions we've made on returns, I'll need somebody to tell me.
  • ninersush
    any way you cut it, starting alex had to happen eventually. now not only do we get to put the age old question of his potential to rest but we can answer what we need to do with our draft next year. oh yeah it also means that if he does well, we probably are playoff bound. funny how in essentially 1 flick of the wrist, 9er nation has completely renewed hope. hopefully it is legit and not a flash in the pan.
    Oct 27, 2009 at 7:55 AM

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