More than any fan base in the NFL, 49er fans know a thing or two about great quarterback play. Old timers will bring up Y.A. Tittle. Gen Xers will talk for hours on end about the heroics of Joe Montana and Steve Young. For the 17 years from 1981 to 1998, the 49er dynasty was led by a Hall of Fame QB…a boast that no team can match.

The aforementioned only underscores the irony of the last 14 years. The 49ers went from perennial competitor to NFL laughingstock in just a few seasons…and stayed there for longer than any of the 49er faithful anticipated. Mired in mediocrity from top to bottom, the 49ers were nothing more than a shadow of the organization that sat atop the NFL for the better part of two decades.

Beginning with the hire of Jim Harbaugh, all of that began to change.

It wasn't evident at first. Not even close. The 49ers started winning…but they did so in a very precise, very conservative manner. The man under center, Alex Smith, was winning games, but he wasn't doing it "the 49er way". Alex Smith was succeeding, but he wasn't the reason the team was winning…and for fans that remembered the 49ers' glory years, that wasn't nearly enough. When the 49ers kept winning, detractors downplayed Smith's perpetually high QB ratings (90.7 for the season), often citing the fact that Smith was being asked to "manage" the game. The mantle of "game manager" became a backhanded (and oft-issued) insult in 49erland.

So called "experts" said that Alex was "not an elite arm talent", that he was "not being asked to do much", or that he was being "hidden by his coaches". As the season wore on, the 49ers continued to win. Smith continued to improve. Little things about his game that were evident to a few at the beginning of the season (improved footwork, quicker release) gave way to bigger things that were almost impossible to ignore (improvisational ability, command of the offense and an uncanny ability to take care of the football). Still, the doubters chirped, "he's not an elite NFL quarterback". Through all of it, Smith did not utter one word of discontent (not publicly, anyway). All he did was win football games, only to deflect credit to his teammates and coaches.

No matter what he did, the list of doubters (Greg Cosell, Merill Hodge, Jamie Dukes, Terry Bradshaw, Howie Long, Phil Simms, Pat Kirwan, Peter King, Bucky Brooks, Jason Cole in addition to a host of local dimwits) refused to acknowledge that Smith was improving. As it turns out...maybe the "experts" don't know everything after all.

On Saturday afternoon, with 97 seconds left to play and 1 time out remaining, the 49ers needed Smith to drive them 85 yards for the win. The game had become precisely what the 49ers were hoping to avoid: a shootout with the league's top ranked offense.

Alex Smith was asked to do something he had never done: put the team on his back and win the most important game of the season. On 3rd and 3 from the 14 yard line with 14 seconds left to play, Smith dropped back and fired the pass of his life. Vernon Davis was there to haul it in...and just like that, the 49ers were back. Big time.

As the 49ers marched toward their Division Title this season, Alex Smith finally shed the "bust" label only to become Alex "The Game Manager". In the final seconds of Saturday's game, he became Alex "The Great"…and for the first time in 15 years, the 49ers are in the NFC Championship Game.

Thanks, Alex.