Perception is reality in the NFL but for Alex Smith this weekend offers a chance to the leagues perception of him.
Smith, a former number one overall draft pick, has been labelled many things over the years but the most unlikely would be Superbowl quarterback but the 27 year old is now just one game from receiving a new moniker.
With the 49ers playing the Giants in the NFC Championship game on Sunday the opportunity presents itself for Smith to shed the tags that have been attached to him throughout his career. The former University of Utah star came to the Niners as the future of a fading franchise but with constant upheaval in San Francisco he never had a chance to show his talents, until this year.
After five seasons that saw him called one of the biggest draft busts in NFL history Smith was given one last opportunity by new coach Jim Harbaugh to succeed. With the Niners having drafted Colin Kaerpernick it seemed that Smith’s one-year contract was little more than a stop gap for San Francisco.
A 13-3 regular season record has however changed everything about the Niners and Smith. Suddenly a once great franchise and a once hyped quarterback had sprung back into life and were playing at an elite level.
For much of the season the offence was led by Frank Gore and a powerful running game that harked back to a bygone era of smash mouth football. But when a play needed to be made Harbaugh had faith in his quarterback Smith who constantly made plays in pressure situations and for the first time in his career Smith led his team.
Having been ran out of town by the Niners fan base at the end of last season Smith has evolved from a bust to a game manager to his NFC Wildcard performance against the New Orleans Saints finally seeing him being hailed as the play maker that the Niners envisioned him becoming.
Tonights game against the New York Giants will be the acid test of Smith and San Francisco. The Giants once more have the most ferocious past rush in the NFL and can create enough pressure with just their defensive lineman. This advantage means that there is little requirement to blitz with linebackers which means that the Giants can consistently have an extra man in the box to neutralise the threat of Gore. They will force Smith to make plays but having spent six seasons floundering due to injuries and inconsistencies Smith just wants the chance to prove himself on the biggest stage of all.