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.