All week long, KNBR personalities recounted their memories of “The Catch” game on its 30th anniversary. For my part, when Dwight Clark caught Joe Montana’s pass, I damaged hotel property at the Sheraton Waikiki. I jumped so high that it took a few minutes to dislodge my head from the ceiling.
I have no doubt that this generation of 49er fans will remember Saturday, January 14th as long as they live. No matter what happens from here on in, the playoff game with the Saints will be etched in 49er lore forever.
I jokingly said at the end of the Fitz and Brooks show Friday that since no one is predicting it, I would forecast the 49ers winning in a shootout. Did I really believe it ? Not completely, but then again no one foresaw a game ending like a thoroughbred horse race with a mad dash to the finish line.
This game wasn’t high drama, it was opera. It was a game of incredible highs and gasp-inducing lows. Could you sell the script to Hollywood ? Yes, probably. There’s a shortage of good ideas in that town right now, so why not ?
The 49ers began the game like their hair was on fire, especially on defense. The likes of Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner acted like bulls who saw red. They hit everything that moved, forcing four first-half turnovers.
Whitner’s hit on Pierre Thomas near the goal line on the first series led to the first turnover. It not only forced the first turnover and kept the Saints from taking the lead, it forced Thomas out of the game, weakening the Saints’ rushing attack.
Although the 49ers bolted to a 17-0 lead, the Saints were too good and too potent to keep down. When Saints quarterback Drew Brees found freakishly talented tight end Jimmy Graham in the end zone, everyone at Candlestick Park knew they were in for a ballgame, especially the 49ers. It was 17-7, and Brees would strike again a few minutes later with a pretty arc to Marques Colston.
Despite four turnovers, the Saints only trailed by three at the half. Then in the third quarter, 49er quarterback Alex Smith briefly reverted to 2006 form as the conservative ‘Niners closed ranks, and Frank Gore was oddly missing from the game plan.
Brees was cooking, while the 49ers offense was beginning to find quicksand. It almost sunk the team, but as they have all season, they leaned on the defense.
Thanks to big plays by Justin Smith and Carlos Rogers, the 49ers managed to put the finger in the dike for a while, and the 49ers held a 23-17 lead midway through the fourth quarter. Fans wondered how much longer the 49ers could lean on their D, which had been on the field way too much.
That’s when the dam burst. On both sides of the ball. What followed was four minutes of mind-blowing football theatre.
Drew Brees found Darren Sproles on a short pass, and if it was flag football he still would have scored a touchdown. The inevitable had happened — the little guy broke a big one — and the Saints led 24-23. An emotion somehwere between worry and panic probably overcame some of the red-clad fans at Candlestick.
Then, Alex Smith and the 49ers began what should have been a defining drive, which included Smith throwing a beautiful sideline lob to tight end Vernon Davis. Then on third down on the Saints’ 28, offensive coordinator Greg Roman pulled a play out of a rather large bag of tricks. Smith, from the shotgun, bootlegged around left end, getting great blocks from Kyle Williams and Joe Staley, and loped all the way in for a score.
On Twitter, some fans were already calling it The Run. Too soon, though.
A few fans wondered whether Smith should have fallen before the goal line and let the clock run, but that’s counter-intuitive for a competitor. It’s debatable whether the 49ers could have run out the clock, but a touchdown is very hard to turn down.
Gore was stuffed on the two-point try, a curious call after the great call on the Smith bootleg. Play-action rollout might have worked better there, but the 49ers still held on to a five-point lead with 2:11 left.
Plenty of time for Brees and the Saints : in fact, too much time. Brees found Graham on a 66 yard catch and run, and Graham rampaged through the weary 49er defense to give the Saints a 30-29 lead, followed by the two point conversion.
Again, some fans might have wondered if Graham should have fallen down just short of the goal line, have the Saints work off the clock, and then dive over the goal line for the clincher. Again, counter-intuitive and too risky.
Graham and the Saints celebrated. Maybe they thought they had finally driven a stake into the 49ers heart. After all, there was no way Alex Smith … ALEX SMITH … could top the great Brees and muster another legendary scoring drive. Could he ?
There was 1:37 left, and I told everyone in the room there was still time to not only tie but win the game. This game had broken loose and if Smith could come up with one clutch drive, why not another ?
Why not, when Vernon Davis was matching Graham and proving next-to-impossible for the likes of Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper to cover ? That was the price the Saints paid for blitzing, and the 49ers took advantage, time and again. Smith found Davis again, and he raced down the left sideline for a 47 yard connection, setting up a possible game-tying field goal.
The way things were going, however, the 49ers did NOT want to go overtime with the Saints. Why risk a coin flip that gives the potent Saints the ball first against a ‘Niner defense that was gassed ?
With a short pass to Frank Gore and a spike, Smith and the 49ers reached the 14-yard line with :14 seconds to go and one timeout left. Time for a shot to the end zone.
That’s what Smith did, and it was the pass of his career. A dart over the middle to Davis at the goal line, touchdown 49ers. With Akers’ extra point it was 36-32 with nine seconds left, and the game was locked up.
In the fading afternoon shadows, Smith and Davis lit up Candlestick better than Pacific Gas and Electric ever could. The pair, who had been through so much over the last several years, played Big Boy Football. At the most opportune time.
After a gallant effort by the defense, it was Smith who had to take this one to the finish line. After all he had been through, after being forged by hardship on the field, he was ready to handle the gridiron crucible.
Then there is Davis, once sent off the field by Mike Singletary. He appeared to cry as he caressed the game-winning ball. Those rough days early in his career had to come to mind in his moment of greatness.
Both players have made millions, but I think if you ask them, nothing is more valuable than those crucial final minutes of Saturday’s classic. They both found their way into 49er legend. As did Roman, and head coach Jim Harbaugh.
This was NOT on the same level as The Catch, which propelled the 49ers into the Super Bowl, but for a fan base that had so little to cheer about since 2003, this will do just fine. Davis’ catch is certainly up there with Terrell Owens’ Catch 2.
For me, it was another chance to do property damage. This time the damage was done to my own home, and I’ll leave it at that.
Funny thing about that lockout. It looked like the worst possible set of circumstances for a new coach with no NFL head-coaching experience, but it worked out well.
It forced the 49ers, and Harbaugh in particular, to cast their lot with Smith as quarterback. Harbaugh, who has gained the reputation as a quarterback “whisperer,” saw enough in Smith to salvage him, and rescued his career. Saturday, Smith repaid the favor.
Now comes a sentence I never thought I would write. The 49ers would not have made the NFC Championship game without Alex Smith. If they decided to pursue other options a year ago, they likely would have watched the playoffs from their living rooms.
If this sounds like a full-fledged apology to Smith, after years of crushing him, it is. He deserves it. Frankly I couldn’t be happier for the guy, who has respect all around the locker room.
I had already said on the air, before the playoffs, that I was sold on Smith as long-term 49er quarterback, as long as Harbaugh was his coach. I’d bet on it now.
Smith had already earned major kudos during a 13-3 regular season, doing things Harbaugh asked him to do within a limited framework. However, Saturday was different. Harbaugh had to let Smith loose, trust him to answer one of the great quarterbacks in the NFL, and win the game instead of just “managing,” that awful word.
In the frantic final minutes, Smith coolly exorcised all of the demons. So did Davis.
The 49ers have come of age. Whether they visit Green Bay or host the Giants in the NFC title game, you want to bet against them now ?