Coaches disdain talk of moral victories, but what the 49ers accomplished in the heart-breaking 25-22 loss to the world champion New Orleans Saints on Monday night should right their ship.
Trailing by eight points in the waning minutes, fighting the notorious Candlestick Park wind, quarterback Alex Smith drove the Niners downfield for a touchdown, using his legs to run for first downs when no receiver was open. And after the touchdown, he threw a pinpoint pass to Vernon Davis for the two-point conversion that tied the game.
It was a coming of age for Smith, and it should prove to his many doubters that he is quite capable of leading the 49ers into the postseason for the first time since 2002.
Smith and his team were fighting an uphill battle all the way. On the Niners’ first possession, the snap from center David Baas went over Smith’s head. As it bounced into the end zone, Smith wisely kicked the ball out, so it only cost the 49ers two points instead of the six that the Saints would have had if they recovered in the end zone.
It was the first in a series of errors by the 49ers. Smith had two interceptions in the red zone, the second a ball tipped by a defensive lineman. Delanie Walker had the ball punched out when he was only 5 yards from the end zone, keeping the 49ers from taking the lead at halftime.
But still, they persevered, actually outplaying the Saints after that disastrous start. In doing so, they wiped away most of the stain of their disgraceful loss in the season opener at Seattle.
There was much to be pleased with in their play Monday. They finally straightened out the problems in their play-calling, getting plays into Smith with time for him to look over the defense before he took the snap. That was one of the important reasons for his greatly improved play.
The play-calling was much better, too. The 49ers were able to keep the Saints defense off-balance most of the evening, which isn’t easy against their blitz-happy schemes.
Amazingly, it was the Saints who used up all their timeouts early in the first half, not the Niners, who had that under control for one of the few times since Mike Singletary has been the coach.
In the opener against the Seahawks, the 49ers defense had crumbled after a very strong beginning. Not Monday night. The defense stayed strong against the potent Saints offense, despite the innovative play-calling of coach Sean Payton.
This kind of effort was essential to halt all the name-calling. It had been a very long eight days for Singletary, who had been fending off calls for the firing of offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye, while admitting that the play-calling and method of getting in plays had to be greatly improved.
With those problems corrected — and the defeatist attitude that had seemed to permeate the team in the first game abolished — the 49ers can now get back to the main order of business.
Though they are 0-2, they are also in the weakest division in the NFL. It won’t take much to win it. After last night, it seems the 49ers will be up to the challenge.