The 49ers have gone beyond expectations and predictions. Who imagined, after eight consecutive losing seasons, they’d finish the regular season with the second-best record in the NFL? Who dared think they would have the top defense against the rush?
A bye in the first round of the playoffs? That’s for teams like the old Niners or the new Packers, except these Niners reached that pinnacle — and it is a pinnacle as well as an advantage — while the Saints and Steelers, Super Bowl entrants the previous two years, did not.
Yet, the complainers are not silenced. They don’t like the red-zone offense, the inability to score touchdowns from close in and needing to accept field goals. That gripe is legitimate.
And the complainers don’t like the way Alex Smith plays quarterback. They contend he is a manager, not a winner. Oh? Is that why the Niners were 13-3?
A manager? They said the same thing about Trent Dilfer, the Santa Cruz resident, who, before he became ESPN’s best analyst, played his final seasons with the Niners. Dilfer merely managed the Baltimore Ravens to victory in Super Bowl XXXV.
Isn’t one of the keys to life being a good manager, understanding how to maximize one’s strengths, how to react in times of difficulty? Whether it’s someone in charge of the country, in charge of a billion-dollar business or in charge of a sports franchise, he or she better know how to manage. Dilfer knew. Alex Smith does.
Alex isn’t Joe Montana. There, the ultimate criticism. Nor is he Steve Young, Terry Bradshaw or Tom Brady, either, and the success of Brady, a sixth-round draft pick makes us wonder how the personnel experts make their judgments.
Even Montana was a bit of an accident, in the 1979 third round, after Bill Walsh saw him throw to James Owens, San Francisco’s choice in the second round.
Alex isn’t Joe Montana. We have that straight. Alex is the efficient leader of a team that has surprised everyone, except perhaps Alex and the man who believed in him, Jim Harbaugh.
After Matt Flynn broke all those passing records New Year’s Day for the Packers, when he started in place of Aaron Rodgers — merely the best current quarterback — the question appeared. Is Rodgers that good? (Answer: yes) Or is it just the system? (Answer: no).
The system matters, and as you remember, the few games Montana was out and Jeff Kemp or Steve Bono would take over and the Niners would keep winning, the skeptics made the same point: Player or system? It’s both, of course.
Montana was special. Still he flourished because of the way Walsh wanted his quarterback to perform, with agility, quick reads, accurate passes instead of particularly long ones.
Now Smith is succeeding because of the way Harbaugh, a former quarterback himself, utilizes a system which gets the best from Smith. Yes, that’s known as managing.
We are caught up with the individual, the star. But football is very much a team game, and the Niners, from place kicker David Akers to punter Andy Lee, are a winning team.
They rarely fumble and almost never throw an interception. That’s managing — and playing — at the highest level, which is the whole idea.
49ers vs. TBD
WHEN: Jan. 14, 1:30 p.m.
WHERE: Candlestick Park
TV: Fox (KTVU, Ch. 2)
RADIO: KNBR (680 AM), KSAN (107.7 FM)