Wednesday, November 17, 2010

49ers’ game-changer: Troy Smith does what Alex Smith never did


NOVEMBER 14, 2010

* Straight from tomorrow morning’s paper (UNEDITED VERSION)…

I’ll add something in a bit, gotta head out of the pressbox right now.
—9:45 p.m. UPDATE: Quick adds…

* -My read is that Mike Singletary’s non-committal stance on the starting QB isn’t a big deal. It’s only to make sure he doesn’t get out too far ahead on the Troy Smith-is-better-than-Alex 49ers theme.

Even though it’s true and almost certainly what Singletary has thought for weeks.

I think Singletary felt a little burned when he made those comments praising Troy Smith’s leadership at the time of the Denver game–even if Singletary really meant them as a comparison to Alex Smith’s more muted style, he didn’t want them interpreted quite so brazenly.

So Singletary will sit and wait a bit on naming Troy Smith the starter for the rest of the season, just for appearance’s sake. He also has the cover of Alex Smith’s left shoulder–Singletary can just say, hey, Alex is not healthy, no public decision necessary until he’s OK to play.

(Smith was on the sidelines, noticeably non-demonstrative throughout the game, as he was when he hurt his right shoulder in 2007, then while he sat out 2008. Probably a lot going through his mind. As there was in 2007-2008.)

But I also believe that Singletary’s determination not to praise Troy Smith too much today is a semi-reverse-sign:.

He likes Troy Smith so much that Singletary wants to stay on him now to make sure Troy keeps working and develops into the QB Singletary wants him to be.

You coach and cajole the guys you think can save your butt. The ones who can’t, you basically ignore.

Alex Smith will never be the savior, though that’s what the 49ers kept hoping.

It showed when Singletary was gentle, gentle, gentle with him (David Carr as a non-threatening back-up?), and it didn’t get the 49ers or Singletary anything.

And gentle-gentle, I think Singletary now realizes, was the wrong approach.

That all pretty much ended when Singletary started shouting at Alex Smith in the Eagles game. He needed a way out of Alex, and he just happened onto Troy Smith.

Troy Smith might not be great. He might not be the QB of the future. But he’s a legitimate QB of the now, which is better than the 49ers have had in many years.

Troy Smith did everything the 49ers hoped, wished and imagined Alex Smith could do at quarterback, for more than five years now.

And Alex Smith never quite pulled it off, not once, definitely not like this.

Not even for one game, not even by accident.

That might not be the most polite way to describe the typically touchy 49ers QB situation. But it’s the deepest truth about Troy Smith’s electrifying, captivating, mood-changing performance Sunday.

“You saw what I saw: He made plays,” coach Mike Singletary said of Troy Smith after he led the 49ers to a key 23-20 overtime victory over St. Louis at Candlestick.

“And made plays in crucial times. That’s what you want. That’s exciting to see.”

Singletary also was careful to say Troy Smith was far from perfect against the Rams and Singletary stayed away from giving Troy Smith the job permanently, with Alex Smith’s shoulder still an issue.

But the conclusion is beyond obvious: The 49ers have their QB for the rest of the season or the rest of Singletary’s career, whichever lasts longer.

It’s Troy Smith (free-agent cast-off), no matter the politics or the health status of Alex Smith (former No. 1 overall draft pick).

Troy Smith fits the offense, fits Singletary’s vision, and it he turned this game into his own when a loss would’ve basically shut down the 49ers’ season.

If Alex Smith played this game, the 49ers probably would have lost it, as they have lost so many others.

But Troy Smith played it and won his second consecutive start, and the 49ers are now 3-6, two games behind Seattle in the NFC West.

“He’s a playmaker–that’s what I’ll describe Troy as,” Vernon Davis said. “He’s not afraid to let the ball go. He wants to make plays and he’ll do whatever he has to do to make it happen.”

By itself, Troy Smith’s statistical line was one the 49ers’ best since the days of Steve Young–17 for 28 for 356 yards, a touchdown, no interceptions, for a 116.7 passer rating.

Alex Smith has never thrown for that many yards, or come close to averaging the 12.71 yards per attempt that Troy Smith accomplished in his second start for the 49ers.

But the real significance of the performance was in the details and the derring-do:

* Smith’s throw to Delanie Walker in overtime, with a passrusher on his back, that drew the pivotal pass-interference call and set up Joe Nedney’s game-winning field goal;

* The back-to-back completions to Frank Gore to convert a third-and-32/fourth-and-18 situation with the 49ers trailing in the final minutes of regulation.

* The sidestepping of countless Rams pass rushers, who were blasting through a banged-up 49ers offensive line, to make play after play;

* The determination to throw the ball deep and give his receivers the chance to battle for the ball.

“I love it,” Gore said of Troy Smith’s deep-ball inclination. “I know the receivers are happy to get the opportunity to go down field and make plays.”

It started with the first play from scrimmage, a 32-yard pass to Vernon Davis, and continued throughout the game.

49ers fans had to be scratching their heads: There’s a 49ers QB who loves to throw it deep? All of the time?

In all, Smith had eight completions that went for 23 yards or more, spread to four different receivers.

“That’s you throwing it to your guy away from their guy,” Troy Smith said of his style. “That’s you putting yourself into a position, as player, as a man–however big or small those guys out there, they deserve a chance to make a play.

“Whether a guy is draped all over him or he’s wide open, this is the NFL.”

Of course, Troy Smith wasn’t always brilliant, and the offense had some fits and starts.

But when the 49ers had to, they moved the ball, sometimes at an incredibly rapid pace. And when Troy Smith could’ve come up small, he always came up big.

Afterwards, did Singletary praise Troy Smith in the locker room?

“I don’t know if you’d call it praise,” Troy Smith said with a smile. “It was his little scowl—I know you probably get the scowl a lot.

“He told me, ‘Good job, and we definitely got to go back to the drawing board.’”

That’s different than what Singletary has said or felt about most of Alex Smith’s performances, no doubt.

But the main point is that the 49ers don’t have to keep hoping and praying for Alex Smith any more.

Troy Smith is their QB now. That’s simple to say and it was simple to see Sunday.

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