Alex Smith plays the minimalist as the 49ers quarterback. There’s nothing wrong with that, especially when you’re fielding a signal-caller with a history of apprehension. Not to mention that San Francisco is where the minimal 6-8 yard pass was popularized.
Joe Montana did his fair share of dinking, mostly because he had streaking receivers like John Taylor and Jerry Rice to make up any yardage setbacks. But Joe Cool also threw a beautiful deep ball that always seemed to float down into the hands of his receivers tearing down the sideline.
While it’s not fair to compare any quarterback to Joe Montana, you can’t help but see a little of No. 16 in Smith, particularly when he makes that quick out or flat route pass with such accuracy. Heck, he even looks like Joe with the brim of his helmet low over the eyebrows. His release is quick and clean too, and produces a catchable, lowly-zipped delivery. And like Montana in the West Coast scheme, most of his passes travel short distances to receivers who are yet to be swallowed up by corners. It’s a rhythmic, timing based game that Smith appears adept at. He's mastered the two-step drop and release.
Early Monday night, however, Smith missed easy opportunities and looked more like the QB from 2006. On his second-quarter bomb to the end zone, he overthrew Michael Crabtree, mainly because he prematurely ducked away and lost sight of the runner. It was a familiar Smith era move. True to old form, he also tossed some passes wide, low and sometimes high. And worse still, he didn’t have much excuse because the offensive line closed off the space around him, erasing the Steeler’s Fire-X rush altogether.
But soon after, as if in time for Christmas, visions of Joe again danced in our heads. Smith began focusing up field, especially when he had a speedy receiver like Ted Ginn open, or a bulky pair of arms on offer, like those attached to Vernon Davis. He hit Davis on perfect loop in the third quarter for the Niners first play over 20 yards in the game. The throw had superb touch, reminiscent of lobs from Montana to Taylor up the middle.
But perhaps the most stunning Smith-led play Monday was the “all in to the right”, which drifted the entire scrimmage one way, with Smith then planting hard and tossing a beautiful arc to Davis in the opposite direction. It was this play more than any other that hurt the Steelers, and in turn, marked Smith’s long overdue arrival on the national stage. Not even power outages could dim these Niner fireworks.
If he continues to execute these creative plays which demand more challenging throws - that ask him to really work the defense - there’s no reason the 49ers can’t march to the NFC championship game. Okay, Smith might not be Montana, but his poise, mobility and accuracy on key plays could be enough to bring the Gold Rush back to the Bay.