By Josh Slocum, Editor of “The A Gap” at Aussie Guys NFL.
Determination. Persistence. Frustration. Elation. Exhaustion. Inner resolve. This. This drive, this play. This win. It had to get done.
I can’t speak for 49ers quarterback Alex Smith. I can only presume the range of emotions he and the players on both teams experienced in this epic playoff game. However, I can easily recall my emotions from that game.
The 49ers trailed 29-32, and it was 3rd and 3 on the 14 yard-line with 14 seconds to go. As a fan, overtime wouldn’t cut it. This game needed to end while we had the opportunity.
And this play was that opportunity. If executed as planned, they would deliver a playoff win of the most unexpected variety and get a proud NFL city back in the post season winner’s column for the first time in 9 years.It would also validate the faith of two players–a beleaguered quarterback and a freakishly talented and underachieving tight end–who always knew that they could compete with the best in the NFL
To truly understand the gravity of this moment, we have to go back to when the nightmare began. Back to when Alex Smith was drafted first overall in the 2005 draft, which marked the beginning of the 49ers going through five offensive coordinators in six seasons—a quarterback’s worst nightmare and an unimaginable horror to come for the rookie.
Back to the public humiliation Smith felt when head coach Mike Nolan called out the young quarterback for not playing when injured.
What coach in his right mind does this?
It only got worse when the next head coach, Mike Singletary, was prone to sideline tirades and public humiliation. (Yeah, I might lack X & O expertise but if I yell at him, something goodis bound to happen!)
By the the start of the 2011 season, Jim Harbaugh was the latest to pass through the coaching turnstile and his hire of Greg Roman was the sixth offensive coordinator for the 49ers in seven years. And because the league was dealing with player lockouts, Harbaugh could only install his offense was with Smith.
Smith, the long time whipping boy by begrudging fans, who didn’t care about his parade of coordinators. The quarterback that San Francisco was expected to be trade for a song if not due to the lockout. The laughing stock of the national football media. .
A new coach, an incumbent and perennial disappointment at quarterback, and a short offseason? It was the perfect recipe for a bottom dweller.
Ironically, “Camp Alex” was the only thing ensuring the 49ers offense was installed before the lockout ended.
It only got worse. Jim Harbaugh’s desire for combativeness meant he skipped the obligatory “coaches call” to Saints counterpart Sean Payton leading to the first preseason game. Payton sent Harbuagh and the 49ers a lesson, blitzing like maniacs and sacking the San Francisco quarterbacks six times en-route to a 24-3 thumping.
As bad as it things appeared before the season was as good as it became when the games counted. The 49ers confounded the doubters, finishing 13-3 and were bent on achieving the true measure of success: a playoff win.
Memories of August and the urgency of playing in January turned the divisional round into a blood feud. Saints Defensive coordinator Greg Williams’ demented mindset meant targeting key 49ers players with the goal of sending them to the training room. The 49ers defenders responded in kind and both sides delivered hit after massive hit.
The 49ers jumped to a 17-0 lead before the Saints rallied. By the half, New Orleans cut the margin to 3. Both offenses stagnated in the 2nd half and until four minutes left in the game, no one would have predicted the two teams would trade 28 points of hay-makers in the waning 240 seconds that riveted anyone within sight or earshot of a television or radio.
It began when Drew Brees found Darren Sproles in man coverage. The back, as slippery as sopping wet bar of soap, made 49ers’ safety Dashon Goldson miss and scampered 44 yards to the end zone to give the Saints a 24-23 lead. It was a sensational play that led me head into hand–half in admiration, half in resignation. But like all fans who hang onto whatever hope that’s left, time was my friend. Although the offense showed little signs of life, there is still time–4:02 to be exact.
And the 49ers offensive came to life on a perfect rainbow from Smith to Davis deep. Smith absorbed a huge hit from the blitzing linebacker.
Just don’t ask Joe Buck about that play. They way he called it, it was all about the catch by Davis, not the throw. If Buck were forced to re-examine his simplistic narrative that Smith was no good, it might cause smoke to pour from his ears and reduce him to constant muttering of only three words “Moss…moonshot…disgusting.”
But the 49ers quarterback took Buck’s sanity to the brink shortly after Smith took the snap, kept the ball and ran straight to his left. A crack block by his receiver on the Saints’ defensive end and a great lead block by his tackle Joe Staley opened a huge swatch up the left side of the field. It was the most unexpected call despite the fact that Smith, one of the most productive running quarterbacks during his era of college football, was most qualified to execute it.
I jumped to my feet, arms pumping the air. The 49ers had restored the lead 29-24 with 2:08 left. After a failed 2-point conversion, I had to temper my enthusiasm. 2:08 was an eternity for for a master like Brees armed with the brilliant tight end Jimmy Graham.
My worst fears were realized on the 4th play of the drive when Brees found Graham in the middle of the field. Three 49ers defenders surrounded Graham but two bounce off like the former power forward was Superman. The third defender took a bad angle and before we 49ers’ fans knew what happened, Graham covered 66 yards to the end zone and the Saints led again!
The broadcast director cut to the stunned crowd and I could see my reflection in the masses: Hands on head, mouth open aghast. I remember thinking the only saving grace was the Saints scored so quickly. There was still 1:37 left.
Once again, hanging onto the hope of dwindling time.
Another Smith to Davis connection took us to the moment where we began: The 14 yard-line with 14 seconds to go.
The NFL is not so much about getting the ball to the obvious target, as it is about getting the ball to them in an unexpected way. As the play call came in Alex Smith’s helmet, the quarterback seemed happy. Surely on the verge of exhaustion after watching the Saints defense blitz on almost every play, the 49ers QB liked what the coaching staff put up their sleeve.
It was a play the Saints hadn’t seen. A play that targets the 49ers’ star TE. A play QB coach Geep Chryst only recently drew it up.
Smith took the snap and Davis released to his left from the slot. The Saints changed things up, only rushing three while eight men patrolled the 24 yards between them and the end line.
Smith looked briefly to his right but only to hold the safety Roman Harper. Once he accomplished that task, Smith looked back to the middle and fired a dart to Davis slipping in front of the linebacker. The big, agile, phenom of a tight end launched ahead of Harper for the ball, absorbing a crushing hit in return…
At that moment, two former 1st round picks, both busts in the eyes of many for years on end, connected and delivered their team and city a win and each other from mediocrity.
I leaped to my feet and threw my hands in the air but there was no lapping the house–not like after the Terrell Owens catch in Green Bay. There was no air-pumping and wild gesticulations like the comeback against the Giants.
I was too spent. I collapsed into my chair, never happier to see a NFL player enjoy a playoff win.
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