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Football, as is life, is a game of expectations

Jan 17, 2012 at 6:37 PM


In their own ways, they are both sons of California. Aaron Rodgers entered the world on December 2, 1983. Born in Chico, California and a graduate of Pleasant Valley High School, Rodgers is a California original. A little over five hundred and ninety miles to the southeast of Chico is La Mesa, California. On May 7, 1984, amongst the rain and the never-ending flow of coffee being poured from smiling baristas, Alexander Douglas Smith was born. Early in Alex's life, the Smith family traded the dreary appeal of the Pacific Northwest for the allure of the California sun. They relocated to La Mesa, where Alex attended and graduated from Helix High School.

While both Aaron and Alex proved to be excellent students, the gridiron beckoned. And whether they chose to do it or the fates did it for them, they became quarterbacks: the ultimate alpha-position in America's most cherished alpha-dominated sport. Two young California boys playing quarterback in an era where the best quarterbacking on the planet during the 1980s' and 1990s' was on display in San Francisco. As 49ers fans, we called it Camelot. It was a magical era. An era filled full of icons who challenged the legends of football's past. In time becoming legends themselves. Walsh, Montana, Clark, Rice, Craig, Rathman, Lott, Jones, Haley, Taylor, Romanowski, McKyer, Seifert, Young, Watters, Floyd, Norton, Hanks, McDonald, Sanders, B. Young, Stubblefield, and the entire offensive lines of every Super Bowl winning team.

In every family there are rivalries and expectations. Within the storied history of the Walsh-Seifert era 49ers, one rivalry stands above the rest: the rivalry between Joe Montana and Steve Young. While bitter rivals, the two quarterbacks led the 49ers to five world championships. Among the pantheon of modern NFL greats, 49ers, Cowboys, Steelers, Patriots, and the Packers, the 49ers remain the only member of this fraternity to never lose a Super Bowl. Indeed, many of us remember when famed ESPN telecaster, Chris "Boomer" Berman, annually made his prediction that the 49ers and the Buffalo Bills, one of the most unfortunate teams in recent sports history, would lock horns in the Super Bowl.

The football deities bestowed upon the 49ers two decades worth of glory. However, just as with any Greek tragedy, what the gods give, they can take away. After the retirement of Steve Young in 1999, the 49ers occasionally showed glimmers of hope, but failed to rekindle the magic of years past. Following an especially brutal season in 2005 where the 49ers, under the tutelage of Dennis Erickson, went 2-14, the organization that years earlier had been the crown jewel of the NFL and the darling of Tecmo Bowl players the world over, received the number one pick in the 2005 NFL draft. At the time, and I suppose that is the way with life, we did not know that the stage was being set for a new rivalry to be born.

I remember the debate in 2005 over Rodgers and Smith that raged back-and-forth on the webzone forums. Rodgers biggest knock seemed to be that he was a Tedford quarterback, which was a dirty label for an NFL QB prospect to carry. Smith came from Urban Meyers's spread offensive at Utah where the young signal caller spent most of his time in the Shotgun. The decision, however, was out of the niner faithful's hands. With the first pick, the San Francisco 49ers selected Alex Smith. Rodgers fell to the Green Bay packers where he was relegated to the bench, while aging gunslinger and niner killer Brett Favre played out his final years in Green Bay. Rodgers would ultimately get his chance, and boy, did he ever perform. Meanwhile in the bay, Alex Smith began a seven year gauntlet that found him surrounded by mediocre head coaches and a revolving door at offensive coordinator. By the end of this carousel, Alex was seven years older and the faithful, the NFL, and even yours truly had all but pronounced his career dead.

Funny how life works, we always expect it to turn out as we expect it to. By this point in Alex's career, he looked every part of a bust. To be sure there were those who defended him. However, there were more that decried him. But life and football don't always work out how we think it will. Sometimes, it takes a fresh face with new ideas. Jim Harbaugh, or as he was known during his playing days, Captain Comeback, fresh from Stanford came to the 49ers in time to resurrect Alex Smith's career. Consider this, Alex Smith, with a limited off-season to learn Harbaugh's playbook has had his best season as a pro. The line: 3,144 Yards, 17 TDS, and only 5 Interceptions. Roughly three-quarters of the way through the season vaunted 49ers quarterback turned NFL analyst, Steve Young on his KNBR show observed: "And I thought he made some big plays, and I think that Alex is slowly becoming part of the reason why they're winning. And people always say he's a manager – that's 70 percent of the job!"

But Steve, how did it happen? How did Alex Smith, in the span of a shortened off-season, improve so much?

"Again, I use the abused-child metaphor. He was a broken guy. When I talked to him in the offseason he was trying to decide what to do. He wasn't sure, but he also knew that what Jim was saying really made sense to him and I couldn't agree more. You get a guy who has come from the Bill Walsh tree or the Bill Walsh philosophy, who understands quarterback-centric game-playing organizations – that feels good. When I went from Tampa Bay, which was as dysfunctional as anything I've ever seen, and I showed up in San Francisco, two things – one, Joe wasn't hurt, that was the first realization I had, and the second was this is really cool for quarterbacks. And it still is. And that's why my heart is so warm – it's finally a place for quarterbacks again. And that's not because we're special, it's because I believe you build off of that, and now the defense rises up, receivers are looking for the ball, the holes are bigger for Frank, people just respond. Everybody gets better. Everybody plays better when the quarterback's making it happen."

You see, though, all of us that have watched Alex have been pleading to him, although he could not hear us, to just win the game and become the player he was supposed to be. We wanted desperately for him to see the game the way we saw it from the safe confines of our couch or seat at the Stick. Worse yet, we wanted him to be Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, or hell, for that matter, some of use wanted him to be Tim Tebow. The talent, after all, was there. In the past, we have seen flashes from him. Most will remember back, years ago, when Alex drove the 49ers down and got the win against the Seahawks in Seattle. And yet, though Smith led the niners to a 13-3 record this season it was not enough. No sir. We the 49er faithful demanded more out of our starting quarterback. If you aren't playing better than the flavor of the month greatest quarterback ever (insert last name here) then you are garbage.

January 14, 2012, Alex Smith shut us all up, including me. And you know what? I love it. In a game that in many ways will be remembered for its ending, this writer will remember for the story it told. Indeed, it was high drama told in the fabled legacy of the great Greek playwrights. But this was no tragedy. It was a rebirth. It was the redemption tale of a man that had taken his fair share of abuse for what he wasn't. No, he isn't Joe Montana. No, he isn't Steve Young. He never will be, either.

And damned if Alex didn't remind us of that, eh? Early in the game, hitting on two touchdown throws, Smith was poised to lead the niners to a blowout. Then it happened. The fumbles returned. One was saved, one, though, was lost. As many will recall, Alex has in the past had issues with fumbling. This, of course, led to a round of discussion about his hand size. A scarey thought, grown men and women worried about the size of a man's hands. What are we, obsessive-compulsive manicurists? No, we are niners fans, thank you very much. And we are insane.

Meanwhile, the 49ers offense began to sputter to a halt. True, we kept it close, but those that watched surely did so with despair in their hearts. As sports fans, we know momentum. It can be a cunning ally or a cutthroat enemy. Momentum had, ala professional wrestling, turned heel and bashed the niners with as steel chair as the Saints took the lead. It was during this moment, when all was wrong with the world that Alex Smith emerged as this quarterback of this franchise for the foreseeable future.

It was third down and seven and the 49ers are trailing the Saints 24-23. The play, as Lowell Cohn tells us, was QB9. The starting quarterback of your San Francisco 49ers took the ball and rolled to his left. Bootleg? No, he kept the damn ball and ran it for twenty-eight yards and the go-ahead score. I called it at the time "The Run." Admittedly, I am desperate for it to stick. My dreams of coining a play for all of sport's eternity aside, Alex's gallop did something to him. But maybe, it wasn't the play after all. According to Cohn, there was a bit of apprehension and debate over the call. Alex ended the debate by making the call himself. My friends, we call that moxie. Whether it was before, during, or after the play, we will never know, but we do know it happened. We witnessed a metamorphosis. A transformation if you will that had two parts.

The second part, as my fellow niner fan's have dubbed "the Catch 3", came during the 49ers final possession of the game when Alex Smith hit Vernon "I like Curling the sport and the exercise more than breathing" Davis for the go-ahead score. When Alex threw the ball there was no hesitation, no second-guessing, no checking down, no fumbling, and no doubt that he was going to hit Davis on the money and win the game. And though the lion's share of that win rightfully belongs to the niner's defense and special teams, a healthy portion also goes to Alex Smith and his final two touchdowns that came on a day when he scored four in total.

Football, as is life, is a game of expectations. Alex Smith is not living up to our expectations, but his own. Good for him, great for us. This coming weekend, he and the rest of the 49ers will renew an old rivalry; however, in a testament to how unpredictable life can be and why you never write an article too early, it won't be against the Green Bay Packers and their California Quarterback, Aaron Rodgers. It will be against an old foe, the New York Football Giants. No need for me to rehash our past with that team. You feel the old wounds as much as I do. The NFC championship game to be played this coming Sunday is dripping with sub-plots. The biggest, however, remains at QB. Can Alex Smith, do it again? Can he lead the niners to victory? And do so when it counts the most?

For this writer, the answer is yes. And when he does do so, he will come one step closer to stepping out of the shadow of not Joe Montana or Steve Young, but Aaron Rodgers. My friends, this is about Alex's expectations, nor our own. Good for him, great for us.

Article Sources:

Alex Smith stats from http://espn.go.com/nfl/player/_/id/8416/alex-smith

Alex Smith background info http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alex_Smith

Aaron Rodgers background info http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aaron_Rodgers

Steve Young Show transcript: http://49ers.pressdemocrat.com/2011/11/inside-the-49ers/steve-young-alex-is-slowly-becoming-part-of-the-reason-why-theyre-winning/

Lowell Cohn "Smith last QB standing after playoff shootout" http://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/20120114/SPORTS/120119673/1010/SPORTS?p=all&tc=pgall&tc=arArticle Sources:

Alex Smith stats from http://espn.go.com/nfl/player/_/id/8416/alex-smith

Alex Smith background info http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alex_Smith

Aaron Rodgers background info http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aaron_Rodgers

Steve Young Show transcript: http://49ers.pressdemocrat.com/2011/11/inside-the-49ers/steve-young-alex-is-slowly-becoming-part-of-the-reason-why-theyre-winning/

Lowell Cohn "Smith last QB standing after playoff shootout" http://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/20120114/SPORTS/120119673/1010/SPORTS?p=all&tc=pgall&tc=ar
The views within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


1 Comment

  • happycow
    This is why I am a NINER FAITHFUL 30 years of loyal insanity. This year we will go all the way!
    Jan 18, 2012 at 3:53 PM
    0
    Response: I hear you! Go Niners!!!

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