By Kevin Lynch
One player should be a wizened, old defensive end playing out his career and focusing on his next occupation. The other player should be a disgruntled quarterback, wallowing at mid-career with waning hopes of fulfilling his first-pick promise. The last player should be an overvalued high draft choice set to disappoint the team that chose him.
Fortunately for the 49ers, DE Justin Smith, QB Alex Smith and pass-rush LB Aldon Smith are failing to live up to their prescribed narratives. These three players are major reasons the 49ers are the surprise of the NFL.
The three Mr. Smiths contributed to reviving this dormant team by reversing the 49ers' 6-10 mark of last year. Under new head coach Jim Harbaugh, Alex Smith is enjoying his finest season, with clutch performances, four fourth-quarter comebacks and a sparkling 93.9 passer rating. Justin Smith is finally getting the recognition he deserves while playing on a winner for one of the rare times in his 11-year career. Rookie Aldon Smith is a burgeoning star with possible Pro Bowl promise after recording 71⁄2 sacks through the first 10 games.
Justin Smith might be the most intriguing of the trio. Harbaugh has called him several things from "John Wayne" to the "closer" to just plain "leader." The first two nicknames come from Smith's propensity to ride into a troubled situation and save the day.
He did it in Philadelphia in Week Four in what could be the watershed moment for this 9-1 team. Coming off a dispiriting overtime loss to the Cowboys and a blue-collar win in Cincinnati, the 49ers looked like they were ready for another disappointment in Philadelphia.
With 2:15 left and the Eagles trailing 24-23, Eagles QB Michael Vick hit speedster Jeremy Maclin with a short pass. Maclin then turned upfield and was motoring into field-goal range when the 290-pound Smith caught Maclin from behind and poked the ball out of his grasp. S Dashon Goldson recovered, preserving the 49ers' upset of the "dream team."
It would later lead Harbaugh to compare Smith to a baseball closer. "Tackling wouldn't have done any good," Smith said after the game. "I had to go for the strip."
Smith fulfilled the closer role once again a month later in a dramatic win over the Giants. With 37 seconds left and faced with a 4th-and-2 from the 49ers' 10, Giants QB Eli Manning looked to throw a short pass to TE Jake Ballard. But the ball never got past the line of scrimmage, because an exhausted Smith punched the ball out of the air. Smith would humbly call it "blind luck."
A day later, Harbaugh challenged Smith's contention of "luck."
"He's walking out with (DE) Ray (McDonald). He's telling Ray, 'Ray, be conscious of the B-gap, stay in your lane, take away the B-gap, get your hands up,' and the last thing he said was, 'He's going to throw it in the B-gap,' " Harbaugh said. Harbaugh also said he didn't know how Smith knew that.
"That's just an example of him thinking through the game," said Harbaugh, and it's one reason Smith has become a leader, in Harbaugh's view.
To read the rest of this story on San Francisco's "GoldSmiths," order a copy of the current issue of Pro Football Weekly. In the latest edition of PFW you will also learn how teams bridge the gap between a veteran QB and a young passer. And don't miss the Way We Hear It, fantasy football analysis and much more.