Just one year ago, Alex Smith was surrounded by calamity.
His 49ers were finishing up their ninth season without a playoff berth, confusion filled the front office on who would be the future head coach, and grumbling could be heard throughout the city over the concern that there would never be a return of their once storied franchise.
Adversity is nothing new for the franchise quarterback, as he has been dealing with it during the past six years and has yet to validate his selection as the number one pick in the 2005 NFL Draft. To add insult to injury, the former Utah star had to sit by and watch as the QB who was picked after him in that draft, Aaron Rodgers, would go on to ascend to football nirvana as the 2010 Super Bowl champion.
With free agency ahead of him prior to the start of the 2011 season, Smith stood at a crossroads that would define his legacy: start over with a new team or try to see if the 49ers’ third head coach during his tenure would be just right for him.
While the easiest path would be to high tail it across the Golden Gate Bridge and never look back, the 27-year-old decided that he would stick around and see what new coach Jim Harbaugh had in store for him.
Now, he is hosting his first home playoff game against NFC Juggernauts, the New Orleans Saints, after orchestrating a brilliant bounce back season that will likely lead him to the 2011 Comeback Player of the Year award.
As sweet as this revival must be for the man who has been the target for many (possibly even all) of the recent 49er problems, the year is not yet complete and his rise can reach epic proportions if his consistent play continues.
The hot debate all week long regarding the 49ers vs Saints game has been centered upon the two strongest qualities on both sides of the ball.
New Orleans’ airborne attack steps into Candlestick with their star, Drew Brees, always ready to bombard the field with touchdowns. Brees will get his fair share of scores, given the prolific style of offense he runs for head coach Sean Payton. If they are down, they can put up numbers quickly and get back into any game quickly. If they are up by a field goal, they could stretch that lead to two touchdowns in just one wink.
The Saints will be tested by the extremely stingy and ferocious San Francisco defense who have the best inside linebacker combo in the league with Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. They will have opportunities they can pounce on, which is illustrated by Brees’ tendency to get a little too overconfident (his fourteen touchdowns are the second most of all quarterbacks still alive in the playoffs). During Wild Card weekend, he gave Detroit numerous opportunities to swing momentum by lofting interceptions into the hands of the defensive backs (which the Lions squandered away by dropping them). That same mistake won’t happen if Carlos Rodgers and the rest of his fellow secondary-mates get their hands on balls.
The Saints will pile up the yardage and get the occasional few touchdowns because they are a great offense, but the 49ers defense is more reliant than Detroit and will keep their team in the game from start to finish.
The difference will be what can Smith do with each drive he begins on Saturday afternoon. There are three objectives he needs to accomplish in order to unlock a berth for his squad in the NFC Championship game.
First is improving on his well-documented struggles in the red zone. Against a team like the Saints who can light up the score board, finishing with field goals like they were doing during the regular season just won’t cut it. While a few shots off David Akers’ leg will assist in attaining a victory, the day could be long for the 49ers if their kicker finishes off drives within the 20-yard line.
The second centers upon the biggest improvement for Smith this year: turnovers. Giving up field position to the Saints is like Usain Bolt getting a head start in the 100-meter dash; it just makes it easy for him to reach the finish line. If the 49ers QB can somehow minimize the mistakes that plagued his career prior to this season, he will keep the game close until the very end. San Francisco will be in the driver’s seat if Brees has more interceptions than Smith.
Finally, Smith will need to control time of possession. Everyone and their parents know that the Saints will have big plays, as their motto is to throw big or go home. Yet, he cannot get into an air-attack match with Brees in which he is trying to top him for most plays of 20 yards or more. Along with the 49ers spooning heavy doses of Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter into the mouth of the Saints front seven, Smith needs to remember that the chains are his best friend and that he just needs to collect first downs. Of course, the 49ers QB will need to pull off a few big plays to stun New Orleans, but jabs and quick hits is where Smith needs to live if he doesn’t want to get knocked out for the count.
San Francisco’s current signal caller will have a ton on his plate to swallow if he hopes to give the fans what they’ve been waiting years to reclaim. If he can keep it all down, the reward will be placing his name among the legion of great quarterbacks to ever to wear the red-and-gold. Joe Montana, Steve Young, and Jeff Garcia were great in the regular season, but it was their ability to be playoff winners that immortalized them on the Mount Rushmore of 49er quarterback gods.
Smith’s 2011 resurrection has provided a buzz for that allows the people to picture his face in that monument mentally, but how he performs on Saturday afternoon will determine if they will finally chisel his bust next to those three greats.