The new and improved Alex Smith. (Getty Images)
Many will take the Vernon Davis touchdown catch from Alex Smith with 14 seconds left in the San Francisco 49ers' divisional round win over the New Orleans Saints and compare it to "The Catch," the pass from Joe Montana to Dwight Clark that happened 30 years and a few days ago and started the Bill Walsh 49ers dynasty by propelling the franchise to its first Super Bowl. But Davis' incredible catch, coming as it did in the end zone with Saints defenders all over him, reminded this observer more of the catch Terrell Owens made in the 1998 wild-card win over the Green Bay Packers with a late pass from Steve Young.
Just as the young Owens hugged his teammates and broke down in the emotion of the moment, Davis couldn't wait to get into the arms of first-year head coach Jim Harbaugh and let the tears flow.
"Just call it 'The Grab,'" Davis said after the game.
"History was going through my mind," he then said of the catch that placed him in the franchise Pantheon with his quarterback. "It was us against history. I said to myself, 'It's us against no and us against can't.' All those things. We just managed to pull it off. It was a very emotional game; it was like a roller coaster."
The emotion of the contest, a 36-32 win by the 49ers, was magnified by a furious fourth quarter in which the lead changed hands five times in the last four minutes of the game. Despite five turnovers, Saints quarterback Drew Brees had his team with its first lead with 4 :02 left in the game, when he hit running back Darren Sproles for a 44-yard touchdown. After the 49ers responded with a 28-yard TD keeper by quarterback Alex Smith, Brees made one of the most amazing throws of his career with an absolute scud missile over the middle to tight end Jimmy Graham, who appeared to be concussed earlier in the game. With 1:37 left, New Orleans had a 32-29 lead.
So, there was Alex Smith, the first overall pick in the 2005 draft, the one-time bust given one last shot in the 2011 season by Harbaugh. And the only thing Smith did in the most important drive of his career was to lead his offense downfield 85 yards in just 1:28 for the winning score. The zip throw to Davis was the kind of gutsy call that one would expect of the NFL's best, which few would consider Smith — at least, until now, and at least, for this one game.
Most impressively, and after an entire season in which Harbaugh made the running game the priority and Smith an ancillary factor, the coach set the controls to an aerial attack. One of three teams in the regular season to run more than they passed, the 49ers ran just 22 plays on the ground versus 42 passing attempts. Smith, who was erratic at times, saved his best for the most important times — of the 24 passes he completed, three were touchdowns and he didn't have a single interception. That was consistent with his regular-season conservatism — he led the NFL in interception percentage.
But it's easy to do that when you're checking down and handing off — what Smith did on that last drive wasn't just a game-changer; it was a career validation may thought he'd never see.
Joe Montana and Steve Young? In at least one way, you now have company. Smith, who maxed out all his contract incentives and earned $6.5 million (not to mention a huge chunk of redemption) for the season, was succinct after the game.
"It's about as good as it gets."
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