Once inconsolable, a dear in headlights fumbling around for a seemingly irretrievable talent, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith has finally found success as the minimalist. When you’re better known for mastering the three-and-out than being the No.1 overall pick in the NFL draft, you’ll take what you get. It also helps that San Francisco is the place where frugal football was popularized. Let’s face it, eight yard passes have unraveled more visitors to Candlestick Park than the Gold Rush cheerleaders.
The guru of passing efficiency, Joe Montana, won four Super Bowls on a healthy diet of short accurate throws, spiralled so tight they eased on-field humidity. As both a method of undermining anxious defensive backs, and keeping his offense purring, Montana did his fair share of dinking and dunking, to be sure. Of course, Niners Coach Bill Walsh was also a man of logic, and realized when you have tentacled targets like Dwight Clark and Charle Young, as well as the elusive John Taylor and Jerry Rice, why fire incessantly at the horizon?
Strangely enough, the secret to short game success is the intermittent long ball – the threat of a game-changing shot – thrown when the defense is leaning forward, gasping like alpine mountaineers. You see, among his torrent of screen lobs and lasers across the middle, Joe Cool also threw a beautiful rainbow that seemed to float momentarily, then sail down into the hands of his receivers galloping along the chalk boundary. It was these deliveries and ensuing catches – set up by rapid dissection of the secondary and bruising charges from the back field – which truly rattled 49er opponents.
While it’s unjust to compare any quarterback to Montana, you can’t help but see a little of No. 16 in Smith, particularly when he makes that quick out or flat route pass with such accuracy. Heck, he even looks like Joe with the brim of his helmet low over the eyebrows. His release is snappy and clean too, and produces a catchable, lowly-zipped ball. And like Montana in the West Coast scheme, most of his passes travel abbreviated distances to receivers who are yet to be swallowed up by antsy defenders. It’s a rhythmic, timing based game that Smith appears adept at. Apparently he’s mastered the two-step drop and release, which should make people forget the dizzying array of truncated plays.
I did have concerns one Monday Night not long ago, however, when Smith missed easy targets while apparently flashing back to his 2006 alter-ego. Suddenly the highly-efficient and winning Niners seemed hopelessly, and perhaps not surprisingly, flawed against a worthy opponent in Pittsburgh. You may recall that on his second-quarter bomb to the end zone Smith overthrew Michael Crabtree, mainly because he ducked the rush prematurely and lost sight of the receiver. For San Francisco fans, the move was unfortunately as commonplace as the Smith name. True to old form, he also tossed some passes wide, low and inordinately high. Worse still, he was out of excuses because the Niners offensive line secured the pocket all night, erasing the Steeler’s fearsome Fire-X rush.
But soon after, just in time for Christmas perhaps, visions of Joe again danced in Smith’s head. He began focusing up field – especially when a speedy receiver like Ted Ginn was open, or a suped-up pair of arms was on offer, like those attached to Vernon Davis. He hit Davis on perfect loop in the third quarter for the Niners first play over 20 yards in the game. The throw had superb touch, reminiscent of tosses from Montana to Taylor up the middle, or even those higher shots to the towering Young during Super Bowl XVI. It showed Smith had guts, not just accuracy.
But perhaps the most stunning Smith-led play that night was the “all in to the right”, which drifted the entire scrimmage one way, with Smith then planting hard and tossing a beautiful arc to Davis in the opposite direction. It was a move, more than any other this season, that marked Smith’s long overdue arrival on the national stage. Way to keep us in suspense, right?
So maybe Alex Smith could lead the Niners to the Super Bowl after all – after all the misreads, brain freezes, broken plays and distraught car rides home from Candlestick. If he continues to be accurate, as indeed he was in his final outing before the playoffs, throwing 21 of 31 and 219 yards against an oddly hyper Rams team, but also nail the more creative plays which demand greater ingenuity, there’s no reason the 49ers can’t march to the Championship.
The other thing the Niners do well is eat up the clock. They’re more methodical than an Obama speech. And that simply means less time for Drew Brees and the Saints to work their offensive voodoo this weekend. It also means the San Francisco defense is rested and ready to rattle the Saints quarterback, and stuff the run while they’re at it.
Smith might not be Montana, he might not be Steve Young; look, he might not even be Jeff Garcia. But his poise, mobility and accuracy on key plays, in tandem with the output of his superb defensive colleagues, could be enough to bring a non-earthquake related rumbling back to the Bay very soon.
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JP Pelosi is a journalist and the editor of Why Football Is Cool, a blog about pro football trends, ideas and culture. He started as a sportswriter on his college paper The Mace and Crown at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. JP has since written stories for The Globe and Mail, The Virginian Pilot, Inside Hoops, The Bleacher Report and Technorati’s football blog The Gridiron Grind. You may email JP directly @ firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @jppelosi16