All year long, there was one big question about the San Francisco 49ers.
No matter how well their defense played, people wondered if Alex Smith was a good enough quarterback to lead them deep into the playoffs. No matter how well the 49ers ran the ball, people wondered if Smith would eventually be their downfall. No matter how good a job Smith did of protecting the ball and putting his team in a position to win, people wondered if the former first overall pick could win a game if circumstances demanded he do it.
All of those questions crystallized with four minutes left in the 49ers' game against the Saints on Sunday. Darren Sproles had just scored on a 44-yard play to put the Saints ahead 24-23 and Smith was facing the biggest moment of his career. Everything had broken right for the 49ers as the Saints kept turning the ball over and the defense held Drew Brees in check, but they were now losing and needed Smith to bail them out largely because he couldn't move the offense enough to take advantage of all their opportunities.
If San Francisco lost, there would have been serious and legitimate questions about whether or not Smith could ever develop into the quarterback that the Niners needed to take the next step in their progression back to the top of the league. Losing that game, at home, would open the job to a competition with rookie Colin Kaepernick and confirm every doubt raised about Smith in his first seven NFL seasons.
Smith didn't lose the game. He won it and he did it in about the most fantastic, did I just see what I thought I saw way possible.
After driving the Niners into field goal range with a long completion to tight end Vernon Davis, Smith and the Niners faced a third-and-eight that screamed for a conservative play to ensure they took the lead. Jim Harbaugh, further confirming his spot as the hottest thing to hit coaching in some time, went the other way and called a quarterback sweep around left end. Smith got great blocking and went 28 yards for a touchdown that started to shake up everyone's perceptions.
Just as an aside: Check out a replay of the run and focus on left tackle Joe Staley's downfield block on Saints safety Isa Abdul-Quddus. Great play call and great run by Smith, but Staley is the reason it was a touchdown.
One other aside: There's a lot of discussion about whether or not Smith should have gone down on the one and run more clock out before kicking a field goal. A fair point, although one that redefines being a wet blanket given the way things wound up playing out.
It also might be a moot point. Brees needed just 34 seconds to answer with another touchdown, time he would have had if Smith took a knee, and left Smith with another chance to rewrite the story of his career. Smith took it. He stood in against a defense that brought the house on blitz after blitz and found Davis for another long play and again had them in range of an easy tying field goal with 14 seconds to play.
Harbaugh showed supreme faith in his quarterback one more time, though, and Smith made it pay off with a perfect pass to Davis a yard into the end zone. The tight end, who was a beast all day, held on through a violent collision, calling to mind Terrell Owens' 1998 game-winner against the Packers right down to the tears on the sideline.
With that, Smith answered every question that we'd been asking about him. He won a game when the Niners had no choice but putting it into his hands and he did it twice in four minutes. And, just like that, Smith's entire career of disappointment and frustration melted away.
Maybe it doesn't last and everything goes haywire against the Giants next Sunday. It's a lot easier to believe in Smith and the Niners after those four minutes, though, and, whatever happens, Alex Smith is seen in a very different light today than he has been at any other point in his career.