Down eight points. Just over two minutes left. Eighty-two yards away from the end zone.
Great quarterbacks – Brady, Manning and, as we saw, Brees — routinely deliver in such situations.
And on Monday night, for at least one drive, Alex Smith was unquestionably great.
Let’s not get carried away. It remains to be seen if the Niners’ eight-play, 82-yard thing of beauty in their 25-22 loss to the Saints will be seen, in retrospect, as a coming-of-age moment for the embattled quarterback — a stinker Sunday in Kansas City will make it seem like an aberration.
But has he ever delivered quite like that in the clutch in his six-year
career? His fourth-quarter performance in a 24-14 win in Seattle in 2006
is the only moment that jumps to mind.
Mike Singletary was asked what he learned about Smith on Monday night.
“Nothing new,” Singletary said. “Nothing new.”
Huh? So he’s seen Smith effortlessly engineer a similar game-hanging-in the-balance, two-minute drive before? Singletary, in his own way, admitted it was a first.
“No,” he said. “What I mean by that is, I have a saying that what we do
in practice we can do in the game, so I’ve seen him do that in practice a
number of times.”
Please. Smith doesn’t get paid to look like Unitas in practice. He has to do it when it matters.
And he did Monday — with his arm and his legs — on the game-tying drive.
First play: A 16-yard completion to Vernon Davis. That was followed by a
12-yard scramble when he turned the corner, stayed in bounds and
tiptoed down the sideline, the type of play rarely seen from a
quarterback with above-average athleticism. Then a 15-yarder to Josh
Morgan. An incompletion. An 18-yarder to Frank Gore. And another
12-yard scramble by Smith around left end.
By the time Gore scored two plays later on a seven-yard dash up the
middle, the only possible knock on Smith was that he was too efficient.
The 53-second drive left too much time on the clock for Brees to do his
Smith (23 of 32, 275 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs) had the third-highest
completion percentage (71.9) of his 42-start career and his
fifth-highest yardage total. In the second and third quarters, he
completed 15 of 17 passes for 181 yards to help the Niners dig out of
their 9-0 hole.
Beyond the numbers, though, he carried himself like a big-time quarterback, according to wide receiver Josh Morgan.
“He came and commanded the whole huddle, he commanded respect in the
huddle,” Morgan said. “He just played a great game. He came in with
confidence and kept us going. He kept us upbeat. You couldn’t have asked
anything more of him … That’s why they drafted him No. 1.”
Smith wasn’t flawless. On his first interception, he felt pressure and
tossed an off-target screen pass to Gore, which was picked by Roman
Harper. His second interception, early in the fourth quarter on the
Saints 22, was deflected at the line – he said he thought he had Michael
Crabtree open for a possible touchdown on a backside slant – and
grabbed by Tracy Porter.
Some guys get the ball tipped, some guys don’t,” Smith said. “Don’t be one of those guys I guess.”
At that moment, Smith was one of those guys.
But he redeemed himself later.
That’s when he was one of those guys who was great when the situation demanded nothing less.