Monday, November 30, 2009

The Redemption

I'm more or less fully entrenched in Football season right now, and yesterday I got a rare treat when most of the 2nd half of the San Francisco 49ers/Jacksonville Jaguars game was on TV here. It's rare that the 49ers are on here at all, unless it's on ESPN or whatever. The only time I've had a chance to see them this season were at the very end of a game where they somehow managed to lose to Mr. Media Whore himself on a last-second TD, and another game where they failed to show up and got bombed by the Atlanta Falcons.

But Sunday, the 49ers, who at 4-6 were clinging to their playoff lives, put forth perhaps their best effort of the season in a solid 20-3 victory over Jacksonville, led by Alex Smith. If you haven't been keeping up with the travails of the 49ers, or Smith, let me give you a quick recap.

Taken as the #1 overall pick in the 2005 Draft, Alex Smith has had at best, a checkered NFL career to this point. Handed the reins midway through the 2005 season, Smith struggled as a starter, throwing 11 interceptions to his 1 touchdown. I had my doubts, but he improved in 2006, leading the 49ers from the doledrums of 4-12 to near-respectability at 7-9. I expected big things out of Smith in 2007. Unfortunately, Smith separated his shoulder early in the season, got rushed back by then-coach Mike Nolan and ended up further damaging his arm to the point where he missed most of 2007, and all of the 2008 season. Meanwhile, unknown Shaun Hill had grabbed the reins at QB and appeared to be running with it. After a bad 2007, Hill led the 49ers to 7-9 in '08, and, much like Smith was in '07, appeared to be primed to take the next step with the Niners in '09. It wasn't so much that Hill was a great passer, but he played a smart, instinctual game, didn't make mistakes and generally led the 49ers to victories. On the other hand, Smith was basically forgotten about. He only remained on the team by restructuring his initial contract, and made the team as a backup. If he'd shown anything during his 4 NFL seasons, it was that he wasn't cut out for the job.

Still, Smith persevered. Though he wasn't much in the consciousness of anybody who followed the 49ers, he returned to training camp with an improved attitude and a new sense of focus. True, it was a longshot. True, he still had to prove he was healthy and over his arm troubles. But he was there, and he put in the necessary work. He was ready, should the situation call for him to step in for Hill. And that situation presented itself in a week 7 game vs. the Houston Texans. Hill had been struggling and the offense had been mostly lifeless throughout the first half of a game that saw the 49ers fall behind 21-0. At the start of the 2nd half, Smith was summoned to take over. And all he did was lead the 49ers on a quick touchdown drive, moving the ball smartly down the field and breathing some life into the team. His attempt at a comeback ultimately fell short, but in throwing 3 TDs in the half, Smith had shown more to us than he had, perhaps, in any of his previous 4 seasons in the league.

The next day, Smith was named the starting quarterback outright. He would be given the chance to prove that he was cut out to be in the league.

Though Smith's results to this point haven't been eye-popping (going into Sunday's game, he had thrown for just over 1,000 yards, with 9 TDs and 7 INTs), he at least was keeping the 49ers in games. Over his first 4 games, the Niners only managed a 1-3 record, but Smith was running the offense solidly and keeping the games respectable. They hung with the undefeated Colts most of the way in his first start, and Smith led another furious comeback in Green Bay. But Sunday, it all fell into place for Smith, who threw for 232 yards, 2 touchdowns, no interceptions and no sacks. More importantly, the 49ers actually were able to take an early lead and hold the Jaguars at bay the rest of the way. In the process, the 49ers improved their record to 5-6. Not impressive, but for a young team with a QB in the midst of a major career reclamation, it's not bad. It's also good enough to be within 2 games of the Division leading Arizona Cardinals, whom the 49ers beat in Week 1, and whom the 49ers play on Monday Night Football in 2 weeks.

For Alex Smith, it continues to be a long road back to where we hope he'll be. But it's games like this, however small they may seem in the grand scheme of things, that make all the difference in the world as far as building confidence and showing that you're capable, and you belong. Smith was the headliner in the 49ers most complete performance of the season to date, and heading into the stretch run of the season, it could be the beginning of the 49ers peaking at the right time and riding that wave into January.

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