The kind of throw Alex Smith has to make if he wants to be San Francisco's longterm quarterback came with 52 seconds left in the first half Monday night at Candlestick Park.
Sitting on the Arionza 35, the 49ers had a four-receiver set -- two wideouts left, one right, with tight end Vernon Davis in the right slot. Rookie Michael Crabtree was split wide left, outside the numbers, with Josh Morgan a few steps inside him, in the slot, and at the snap of the ball, each ran 18 yards downfield while Smith took a classic seven-step drop.
At the 17, Crabtree cut hard to the right, using Morgan as a bit of a pick, and Smith, set up at the Arizona 44, let fly as cornerback Bryant McFadden trailed Crabtree. The throw was a little high, but eminently catchable, and Crabtree plucked it out of the air, gave McFadden a little stiff-arm along the way, and scored to give the Niners a commanding 17-0 halftime lead during their 24-9 victory over the Cardinals.
"Great throw by Alex,'' San Francisco GM Scot McCloughan said a few minutes later, by phone from the perch in his box at press-box level.
No doubt. That led me to my question of the night: Has Smith, the former bust of a first-round pick, done enough to be the 49ers' quarterback in 2010 and beyond?
"He's making progress,'' said McCloughan, "Is he for sure the guy yet? I don't know. We've got three more games after tonight, and he needs to end the season strong. But we're encouraged. We're seeing more and more maturity, and he's growing in this system.
"He's had the benefit of working with Mike McCarthy and Norv Turner in their systems, and now with [offensive coordinator] Jimmy Raye in his system, and he's got much more talent to work with than he did when he first got here. We don't need him to be a superstar. We just need him to play within the system, which he's done recently.''
That pass to Crabtree is what the Niners need to be sure Smith can do regularly. He came into the NFL with a rep for good mobility and a very average arm. If he's got a deep threat like Crabtree, he needs to be able to hit him downfield. The pass he threw for the touchdown to Crabtree Monday night was on target and fired crisply from 27 yards away in traffic.
At the end of the year, the San Francisco brass -- and McCloughan surely will be back in 2010 -- will determine if Smith can make that throw consistently. My gut feel is they'll say yes, and they'll look elsewhere with their first-round pick. But as McCloughan said, Smith will have to play well against Philly, Detroit and St. Louis down the stretch. Mike Singletary will make sure none of those games are meaningless, regardless of the playoff status of the long-shot NIners. They'll be very meaningful for Smith too.
Three quick observations before getting to your mail:
1. Don "Donnie Brasco'' Banks had one of the great observations of this football season the other day. With six former Super Bowl-winning coaches (Shanahan, Cowher, Holmgren, Billick, Dungy, Gruden) on the sidelines, and at least three of them serious contenders to get back in the game in January, Banks researched Super Bowl-winning coaches who left the team they won a title with and went to another team. In their NFL reincarnations, those coaches went 0-for-11 in winning a championship at their next stop or stops. In other words, be careful what you wish for when you're praying for one of these guys to come run your team.
2. Of course the Cowboys have a bad December history. But let's be careful when we say they choked in the loss to San Diego the other day. Come on. The Chargers entered the game one of the three hottest teams in football, with a killer passing game, and Dallas held them to one touchdown pass and 2.4 yards per rush, outgained them and played a superior team well.
I'm not saying I believe in moral victories. I am saying it's silly to look at this schedule, with two of the best four teams in football (Chargers, Saints) on the sked in Weeks 14 and 15, and when, as expected, they lose the first and may well lose the second, think the Cowboys are choking through another December. You can say they're not as good as you thought they were, or as good as they thought they were. But choke? Other than Nick Folk missing a makeable 42-yard field goal attempt, I don't buy it.
3. You've seen Tom Brady and Bill Belichick staunchly defend Randy Moss in the last 36 hours, and so you're thinking, "Well, maybe the media's being too hard on Moss for laying down against Carolina.'' Not true.
There's a reason Brady, desperate for another target at receiver other than Wes Welker, threw four of his 32 passes for Moss on Sunday, and went 2.5 quarters without throwing a pass Moss' way after Moss fumbled on the first play of the second quarter. It's because Moss checked out of this game, giving only marginal effort.
But the reason you won't ever hear Belichick or Brady even remotely chide Moss is because they know -- as Denny Green knew a decade ago and Mike Tice knew after him -- that Moss will check out totally if you challenge him mentally. He's soft. And Brady and Belichick are trying to get whatever they can out of this classic prima donna as they try to save their season. Sitting on him doesn't accomplish that.
Now for your e-mail:
• GOOD QUESTION. I'VE BEEN GIVING THIS A LOT OF THOUGHT. From Tom Alexanderof Asheville, N.C.: "How will Peyton Manning sitting out the next three weeks affect your opinion for MVP?''
I don't know. I have to see how the other contenders play in the last three weeks, and how Manning plays, and how much he plays. I'm not sure it'll change my thought process. At first glance, Manning has led the Colts' to homefield advantage through the AFC playoffs and gotten his team to 13-0 and is contending to have the most accurate passing season ever while breaking in two new receivers with a poor running game and a so-so offensive line. That's the definition of value. But let's see how the last three weeks play out, and how Drew Brees, Brett Favre and Philip Rivers play down the stretch.
• ANOTHER GREAT QUESTION. From Ben of Bowie, Md.: "Peter, I'm a Skins fan with no delusions -- Jim Zorn is getting the axe at the end of the season. But with the Skins playing competitive football, what do you think are the chances of other elements of the team staying intact? Greg Blache's defense and Jason Campbell come to mind.''
Well, I'll tell you this -- if Mike Shanahan gets the job, he's bringing Bob Slowik in as defensive coordinator, and I'm pretty sure he'll use a draft choice to pick and then develop his long-term quarterback. But I could see another coach, an offensive-minded coach, keeping Blache, who is an excellent coach with the strong backing of his men.
Campbell? Very good question. He's shown excellent progress in the last month. But my feeling is the 'Skins will move on from him. They have an itchy quarterback trigger finger. They wanted Jay Cutler. They wanted Mark Sanchez. With a good crop of your passers available come April, I think they'll want one of the young kids.
• HIS LIONS DAY MIGHT DOOM HIM. From Ryan Luke of Lansing, Mich.: "Peter, why hasn't Marty Mornhinweg been mentioned as a possible head coaching candidate? Since coming to the Eagles, he has given the Eagles one of the more dominant offenses. Sunday night was a perfect example. Could it be that he is Philadelphia's "coach in waiting", a la Jim Mora Jr. or Jim Caldwell? I truly hope that his Lions tenure is not holding him back. I think it is evident by now the Lions' ineptitude the last nine years was due to management... not coaching. So, will he get another chance?''
He might, but Steve Mariucci, who wanted to get back in, never got another shot, even though he had success in San Francisco prior to his run in Detroit. I don't see it happening, but you never know.
• YES. From Bob Block of Princeton, N.J.: "As bad as the Giants defense was on Sunday night, the Eagles defense was worse. Aren't you concerned that Eagles will need to outscore the Saints, Vikings or Cardinals in the playoffs?''
Well, of course. You don't give a struggling quarterback like Eli Manning a 391-yard night and you don't give any team 512 yards without being concerned. Sean McDermott has to find a way to get more pressure on the quarterback. It's simple. For the Eagles to make noise in January, I think Trent Cole has to be as valuable as Donovan McNabb --and any team that has to rely on its offense to score 40 points to win every week is not winning the Super Bowl.
• I THINK THE NFL HAS TO BE RIGID. From Randy of New York: "It occured to me the other day that under the concussion rules the NFL just adopted, the Giants would have had to play the majority of Super Bowl XXV with Matt Cavanaugh at quaterback. Rather than risk the possibility of this year's game turning into the Jim Sorgi Bowl, don't you think the NFL would be wise to allow for a little flexibility in allowing players to re-enter a game after suffering a mild concussion. Perhaps players should be asked, ahead of time, to sign a waiver in which they choose which situations they are willing to re-enter a game. I'm sure that Peyton Manning would declare that he is willing to re-enter the Super Bowl even after suffering from reasonably mild concussion symptoms.''
Randy, I understand how this looks namby-pamby. But if you don't draw a line in the sand about head trauma, there's no way the league is ever going to get a handle on it. Do you think any player with his eggs scrambled in the heat of battle of a huge game, is going to answer the question logically if asked if he wants to go back in the game? He's not, and that's why it has to be taken out of his hands and put in the hands of a neurologist who understands the long-term effects of this stuff.