A day of redemption for Alex Smith


A day of redemption for Alex Smith


SAN FRANCISCO -- Alex Smith turned the corner with the ball, ran a few steps and broke into a smile. He was going to score the winning touchdown in the biggest game of his life and assure that he would never buy a drink in San Francisco ever again.

And that was 121 seconds and two touchdowns too early for what he would ultimately feel.

As the West Bay and pockets of the rest of the Bay Area throbbed with the stunned joy of Saturdays 36-32 NFC divisional playoff win over New Orleans, Smith bought himself a perpetual get-out-of-anything card with what even the most cynical person would call the game of his life.

And in doing so, took the rest of the 49er franchise with him.

History, Vernon Davis, who caught the actual game-winning touchdown, would later call the beast that was slain Saturday. Just history. Going through what we all went through. It was a win over history, over no, over cant.

And nobody on the 49er roster has had more of each than Smith.

To be sure, this game defied literally every word that tumbled from every pundits lips this week. Nothing we believed would be true turned out to be true, in any facet of the game, which made the final quarter and its heaps of Did that just happen? plays the perfect metaphor for everything we dont know about the most over-analyzed sport on earth.

So ultimately it should have fallen to Smith, the callused campaigner, to end up the best magician of all. As much as Justin Smith was the dominant defensive player on the field, as much as Donte Whitner clocked people with great force from every angle, as much as Davis had the game of his life . . . this was the game in which Alex Smith stabbed every last demon to death.

This was the one where every fault, every fumble, every pick and every defeat could be negated with Yeah, well I got this one. And the argument ends there.

Smith didnt handle the game or even manage it; the game became unmanageable well before the fourth quarter, and was nearly a full-on piefight by the end. What Smith did, rather, was own the game -- flat own it, as though he was Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers or Eli Manning.

He engineered an 80-yard go-ahead touchdown drive and an 85-yard winning touchdown drive in the final four minutes. He did it by finding Davis in single coverage for 37 yards and then later for 47, and he did it with QB 9, the running play that took him 28 yards to the end zone, the last 15 with that smile on his face.

And he did it with Vernon Post, the little slant from the left in which he hit Davis in stride at the goal line and let the tight end plow over Saints safety Roman Harper, who wandered around afterward free from his faculties due to the force of the collision.

Guys were so confident, Smith said afterward, surely fibbing just a bit, that as long as we had time we had a shot.

In fact, that might have been the enduring moment of this game, in the same way that the picture of Dwight Clark leaping into the air over Everson Walls 30 years ago was the enduring moment of the NFC championship game.

I knew I had to throw it hard, Smith said of the touchdown pass with the cold precision of the mechanic whose shirt he seemed to be wearing. I knew it was going to be a bang-bang play, (so) I had to stick it in there.

But while people stumbled over what to call the touchdown -- head coach Jim Harbaugh leaned toward The Throw And Catch while Davis vacillated between The Grab and the slightly more lyrical if derivative Catch 2, the actual moment that will last is the smile on Smiths face when he turned the corner on the touchdown run that made it 29-24 .

It was the moment when Smith saw the block from Kyle Williams that sprung him (I knew I was going to get the first down, and thats really all I was after) and then the field of open space before him that made the first down a meaningless achievement. It was the moment when he must have felt free at last.

And maybe it was the moment that allowed him not to give in to historical gravity when the Saints retaliated with the 66-yard touchdown to Jimmy Graham with 1:37 left. He had felt triumph in a game that finally mattered, and he believed he could feel it again.

He would need others, to be sure, as all quarterbacks must, but as Davis said afterward, This was just a lot of stress over the years, a lot of doubt, a lot of criticism, especially for Alex . . . I want to see him successful. I just want all good things to happen for him.

He means like Saturday, when the last question was answered, and his abuse-filled apprenticeship ended for good. He kicked historys ass, and helped kick-start the history that is just beginning to unfold.

Ray Ratto is a columnist for CSNBayArea.com.

A sports-related pie-fixing scandal? Hell never felt so fun


A sports-related pie-fixing scandal? Hell never felt so fun

I’m liking this 2017 so far. Then again, after 2016, nearly any year would be an improvement.

Just this last weekend we got a flat-earth scandal that turned into a mock-up about media self-importance and fake news (yay Kyrie Irving and his impish sense of satire!).

We got the overblown Russell-Hates-Kevin narrative, and the faux Russell-Secretly-Loves-Kevin counternarrative, all because we are stunningly attracted to meaningless and utterly contrived drama (yay our ability to B.S. ourselves!).

We got the NBA All-Star Game ripped for having no defense even though last year’s game was, if anything, worse (yay short attention span!).

We got the Boogie Cousins trade and the national revulsion of all the thought processes the Sacramento Kings put into this perpetually rolling disaster (yay making Boogie and Vivek Ranadive household names!).

And now we got the Great Sutton United Pie-Fixing Scandal. Yeah, pie-fixing. Hell never felt so fun.

So here’s the deal. Sutton United, a very small fry in English soccer, got to the fifth round of the FA Cup, a competition in which all the clubs in England are commingled and play each other until one team remains. The big clubs almost always win, so any time a small club goes deep, it’s a big deal.

Anyway, Sutton went deeper in the competition than nearly anyone in the last century, a charming development given that it is such a small club that it had a stadium caretaker, goalie coach and backup goalie all in one massive fellow, a 46-year-old guy named Wayne Shaw. Shaw became the globular embodiment of the entire Sutton Experience, a jolly lark for everyone involved and especially when he ate a pie on the bench in the final minutes of Sutton’s Cup-exiting loss to Arsenal.

And now he’s been eased into resigning his jobs with the club, because – and this is so very British – there were betting shops taking action on whether he would in fact eat a pie on the bench, and he either did or did not tip off his pals that he was going to chow down on television.

He did eat the pie. His pals collected on their bets. The sport’s governing body opened an investigation into market manipulation by gambling – which is hilarious given that no fewer than 10 gambling establishments have advertising deals with English soccer clubs. Shaw was invited to quit to kill the story, and he took the hint.

Hey, dreams die all the time. But it’s still pie-fixing. Let that rattle around your head for a minute. Pie-fixing. Not match-fixing. Not point-shaving. Pie-fixing.

Now how can you not love this year?

Sure, it sucks for Shaw, but it serves as a series of cautionary tales for athletes around the world.

* Gambling is everywhere, and every time you inch toward it, you dance on the third rail.

* If you want to help your friends, give them cash.

* This is a horribly delicious way to lose your gig.

* And finally, fun in the 21st century isn’t ever truly fun because someone in a suit and a snugly-placed stick is going to make sure you pay full retail for that fun.

But it is nice to know that something that has never happened before is now part of our year. Pie-fixing is a thing now, as silly in its way as Irving’s flat-earth narrative was. And as we steer away from normal games as being too run-of-the-mill-fuddy-duddy entertainment, we have replaced them with sideshows.

Or do you forget how many people complained Saturday and Sunday that the dunk contest wasn’t interesting enough? How stupid is that?

Lots. Lots of stupid. But against pie-tin-shaped planets and pies turned into betting coups, how can it possibly compare?

We chase a lot of idiotic narratives in our sporting lives. The great What Will The Patriots Do To Roger Goodell story died like the old dog it was. We still try to flog Warriors-Thunder as a rivalry in search of better TV ratings when all the obvious evidence is that it is no such thing unless you think a couple that broke up nine months ago is still a solid story. We have Bachelor fantasy leagues, for God’s sake.

This would leave most normal folks in despair, thus matching their everyday experiences, but yin meets yang, and every time it looks like we are all barrel-rolling into the sun, we get Irving, and then we get Wayne Shaw.

In short, 2017 is going to be fun of grand surprises for us all. I look forward to the day President Trump tries to fete the Patriots and only gets to Skype with Bob Kraft and the equipment guys who midwifed DeflateGate, and Mark Davis in Las Vegas, just to see if he can get a P.F. Chang’s into the Bellagio.

Why not? This is sport’s year-long tribute to sketch comedy, and evidently everyone is signing on enthusiastically to replace lessons of morality and honor and equality and dignity and sportsmanship with slackened jaws and belly laughs.

So yay sports! Or as it is clearly becoming, A Night At The Improv.

Patriots win one for the ages, but where does it rank?

Patriots win one for the ages, but where does it rank?

The price of watching Roger Goodell being booed back to the Bronze Age is a subtle but real one, and one that people will feel very dearly soon enough.

The last great cathartic Super Bowl is now done, with the New England Patriots winning the brilliant and decisive battle to be sports’ new evil empire. In doing so, it rendered Goodell a permanent and risible punch line in National Football League history, the mall cop who wanted the death penalty for littering, and in the words of the song “got what he wanted but he lost what he had.”

True, $40 million a year can make the dissolution of your public persona a reasonably decent tradeoff, but we lost the argument about who won his windmill tilt with the Patriots. It’s done, and he is now permanently and irrevocably a figure of ridicule.

But that’s not the only debating point America lost Sunday night, and while you wouldn’t think it given how much time we are willing to shouting at each other, quality arguments are not easily replaced.

We have almost surely lost the mindless debate about the best quarterback ever, because there is nothing anyone can bring up that the words “Tom Brady” cannot rebut except calling his own plays, and since that is no longer allowed in football, it is a silly asterisk to apply.

We have almost surely lost the equally silly shouter about the best coach ever. Bill Belichick is defiantly not fun, but he has built, improved and bronzed an organizational model that is slowly swallowing the rest of the sport. That and five trophies makes him the equal if not better of the short list of Paul Brown, George Halas, Vince Lombardi, Bill Walsh and Tom Landry.

Plus, Belichick locked up the most absurd response to a question in coaching history Monday when he said, “As great as today feels . . . we're five weeks behind the other teams for the 2017 season.” Even allowing for Gregg Popovich in-game interviews, the so-grim-he-could-make-a-robot-cry worship-the-process response has now become a cliché. If 2017 prep was so important, he should have skipped yesterday’s game, and he definitely should have chosen not to waste so much time on the trophy stand after the game when training camp drills needed to be scheduled.

Oh, and DeflateGate died. Dead. No zombie possibilities here.

We do have a meatheaded argument ahead of us about which championship in the last year is the best, which can be settled here.

1. Leicester City, because 5,000-1 is 5,000-1, and the whole world understands that. Plus, there was invaluable three-month buildup that engaged non-soccer fans.

2. Chicago Cubs, because 108 years is 108 years.

3. New England Patriots, because . . . well, I don’t have to explain it unless you have no useful memory span. “Down 25 In The Third Quarter” is the new “Down 3-1.”

4. Cleveland Cavaliers, because they slayed the first unbeatable Warrior team by coming from 3-1 down, and even as a silver medalist, it will always be an internet meme, which is what passes for memorable in our decrepit culture.

5. (tie) Villanova basketball and Clemson football in a tie, because they were essentially the same great game.

7. The Pittsburgh Penguins, because the Stanley Cup Final was devoid of drama or high moments, and only 14:53 of overtime. Feh.

But everything else is settled, and this Super Bowl will not be topped for a long time. Our current cycle of absurd championships is almost surely going to end soon, because “Down 3-1” has happened twice in eight months (three times, if you count Warriors over Thunder), and the bar has now been placed well beyond reasonable clearing.

Indeed, the only thing left is for a championship team to spontaneously combust on the award stand. But if they do so and ignite Roger Goodell along the way, that would be an ending America would cheerfully endorse.

But that also isn’t an argument any more, and yes, that includes Gary Bettman.