As Alex Smith was directing what would become a 12-play, 70-yard touchdown drive against the Vikings' starting D--after he'd dropped back, stood tall, zipped through his reads, and fired a strike--Cris Collinsworth said it perfectly. He captured what we all were thinking, giving voice to both how little we've come to expect and how much we've striven to hope.

"That looks like some quarterback play right there!"

Indeed, Cris. We barely recognize, but we remember. We've had some decent quarterbacks, after all.

And yeah, that was quarterback play.

With great assistance from his offensive line, Smith was 5 for 6 for 59 yards and 3 third-down conversions. But as usual, the numbers don't begin to tell the tale. Facing one of the league's best Ds, and doing it without his three best weapons, it would've been perfectly easy for Smith to lay another egg and let the excuses fly. We heard plenty of those last week. But impressively--and surprisingly--Mike Singletary said he'd had enough.

"I've heard, 'Alex Smith [can't] play without Gore, without Vernon, without Crabtree,' " he said. "But, to me, if you're a good quarterback, you have to make the situation better."


That's what's been wrong with ALL these so-called "Alexcuses." The rotating offensive coordinators, the injuries, the dubious supporting casts. Sure, those haven't helped. But you're the quarterback, son. You're the leader. You were drafted #1, and you make a lot of dough. So don't point any fingers. Just do your job. Be the man.

Make the situation better.

That's what Smith did on that opening drive. With each pass--especially on those third downs--you kept expecting him to revert: to bail out of the rush, to throw into coverage, to miss high and wide. And again and again, he just didn't do it. His pocket presence was strong, his decisions were sound, and his throws were on target. Quite simply, he was every bit as good as he'd been.


Of course, one drive does not a QB make, and it was disappointing to see no reprise. After those 12 plays for 70 yards, Smith ran another 14 for 37. Smith didn't do anything wrong, though, proving that even on his game he's no match for our stultifying offensive philosophy.

A creative offensive mind will strategize, attacking where the defense is weak, forsaking his personal preferences where necessary. We don't do that here. Here we RUN, no matter what, even against an elite rushing D.

In Smith's half, we had 11 first-down plays. We ran on 10, for a total of 7 yards. (The 1 pass gained 12.) A run-first O, into the teeth of a run-first D.

Is it any wonder that Smith could sustain only one drive?

Make no mistake, Smith has a long way to go. We've seen all this before. A perfect throw here, a flawless drive there, a brilliant quarter here, a solid half there. He keeps dangling that carrot, riling us up about his limitless potential, just in time for a giant step back. He had a nice game, but it'll take many more to earn our belief. By now he's lost the benefit of the doubt.

But if Singletary insists on putting him in third-and-eight every drive, how good he is won't matter at all. As we did Sunday--and all of last year--we'll score a little and punt a lot, and place our fate in the hands of our D.

I truly loathe that style of play. I'll say this, though. Our D just might be up to the task.

In all the drama surrounding Singletary and Smith, it's easy to forget all about Greg Manusky. Of course, most NFL fans have never heard of him to begin with. But this guy's quietly becoming a genius.

Often, a coach is deemed great when all he does is send out great players who play great. But the REAL measure of a coach is whether his whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Manusky's got just one great player: all-world linebacker Patrick Willis, who greeted Brett Favre with all due brutality. Yet his D's on the cusp of genuine greatness.

By definition, a 3-4 defense demands creativity, the constant shuffling of alignments, blitzes, and stunts. Still, when you've got two legit sack artists at outside 'backer--see, for example, those damnable Cowboys--the coach's job is pretty simple. Just send 'em.

By now we know that Manny Lawson and Parys Haralson aren't good enough for that. So Manusky's forced to be even MORE creative, and his results are virtually unbelievable. Despite a paltry 6½ from last year's leading sacker (Lawson), his D on the whole was third in sacks, and on Sunday he conjured up constant pressure, including 8 QB hits and 4 sacks by 4 players. In the end he allowed only two yards per pass, and in a pass-first league, that's a serious thing.

"I would love to have the ultimate two pass-rushers off the edge, of course," Manusky said. "But, for the most part, it's the system." In other words, it's not the players, it's the coach. Let's hope the secret never gets out.

The question, though, is whether Singletary will ask too much. Just as he can't ask Smith--or anyone--to repeatedly convert on third-and-long, he can't ask his D to repeatedly win games seven to three. It's not fair. And it won't work.

Smith might lead a nice drive or two. But for us to be great, our O must be as creative as our D.

Maybe Manusky can run that too.