Don't put Alex Smith's handprints on Hollywood's Walk of Mediocrity just yet. Wait a year or so before you carve his copper bust for the Pro Football Hall of Competence.
But if Monday night was any indication, 2005 overall No. 1 pick Alex Smith might just evolve this year into an average NFL quarterback, and etch his name alongside the likes of Chad Henne, Bruce Gradkowski and Matt Cassel.
If you fell asleep at halftime of the Saints-49ers game, we don't want to shock you out of your dreamy reverie. The Saints still won, 25-22 on Garrett Hartley's walk-off field goal, to be exact.
But Smith actually performed quite well, with more yards than Drew Brees, a higher completion percentage and a greater average per attempt.
Smith even threatened to steal the show: the hometown 49ers trailed 22-14 with just 2:08 to play when they took over at their own 18. Given Smith's history, given the fact that the Saints fielded one of the league's best pass defenses in 2009 (No. 3 in Defensive Passer Rating), and given the fact that New Orleans had shut down BrettFavre a week earlier – our real and spectacular pick that the Saints would cover looked strong.
It looked like San Fran's night was over.
But Smith, working entirely from the shotgun, quickly drove the 49ers into New Orleans territory. Frank Gore (20 attempts, 112 yards) punched it from seven yards out to make the score 22-20. Smith then threw for 2 points to Vernon Davis, aided by a video replay reversal.
It looked like Smith had finally produced a signature moment against a A-lis opponent, the moment that 49ers fans had envisioned when he was taken with the first pick of the 2005 draft.
But no such luck. The 49ers scored too quickly, they didn't milk the time off the clock. They left Brees, the best quarterback in football since the start of the 2009 season, 1:14 to go. He and the Saints took over on the 30: six plays later they were on the San Francisco 19. Hartley booted the game winner.
The 49ers had lost a game within their grasp, a game against the defending champs no less. Smith, of course, played his role in the loss, as quarterbacks almost always do, despite a day of good numbers.
San Francisco's day began ominously: on the third play from scrimmage, with Smith in the shotgun for the first time, center David Baas fired off one of the worst snaps in history, so high and far over Smith's head as to defy description. Smith desperately knocked the ball out of the end zone, a smart play in the circumstances, resulting in a safety.
The two points were certainly not the fault of the quarterback. But they proved the difference between victory and defeat, the type of terrible, undisciplined play that often hijacks the hopes of struggling outfits like the 49ers. You expect Pop Warner teams to execute shotgun snaps, let alone NFL teams.
But Smith played his role in the defeat by throwing two picks: the first came later in the first quarter, with New Orleans sporting a 9-0 lead. Smith led Gore too far, and the ball ended up in the hands of Ron Harper.
Then came the killer in the fourth quarter: the Saints led 19-14, when Smith threw over the middle to Michael Crabtree. The ball was intercepted by big-pick man extraordinaire Tracy Porter. That was the play that statistically submarined the 49ers. (As followers of the Cold, Hard Football Facts Interception Ladder know, teams that throw two picks lose 60 percent of the time.)
Brees, for his part, might have had more humble overall numbers on the day. But he didn't throw a single pick. He won the game.
At the very least, even with a loss to the defending champs, the future looks a little bit brighter today than it did Monday morning: San Francisco fans last night watched as a perhaps competent quarterback was born.
And even that humble step has been a long time coming in this once-proud quarterbacking town.