Commentary: Gritty Smith places 49ers on his shoulders in clutch

SAN FRANCISCO -- Right before our eyes, Alex Smith grew up.

He became the quarterback the 49ers dreamed of when they first laid eyes on him as a boyish hurler from the University of Utah.

He became the fleshed-out version of the lost puppy smeared on NFL gridirons across the league two years ago.

He became a man, the leader, the savior of a game surely lost to a faulty game plan by his coach and faulty emotions of his teammates.

Winning QBs do that. They steal victories when defeat is what their team deserves. Monday night, the 49ers deserved to lose to the Arizona Cardinals. They deserved to start a season of bloated dreams with the rancid reality that games are not won on paper in the NFL.

They deserved to be punished for barely moving the ball for 3½ quarters. They deserved to be second-guessed for predictable play calling -- for alligator-armed receivers seemingly afraid to chase Smith's throws for fear of Arizona's blows.

Arizona's blitz all game long? Smith and the boys -- emphasis on the word, boys -- couldn't deal with it.

And then there were the 49ers' miscues. The fumble that set up one Cardinals touchdown, the roughing-the-kicker call that put another three points on the board. Then a facemask and an unforgiveable personal foul on safety Mark Roman and suddenly a harsh reality was emerging here Monday night.

A reality that maybe -- just maybe -- Mike Nolan looks great in a suit, but the garment of victory was too big for the little dude.

His game plan was like a pair of moth-pocked trousers on prom night. It was full of holes when the lights went on, when the dancing started.

There is no such thing as a meaningless game in the NFL. In an NFC where there are razor-thin margins between large clusters of teams -- where the bulk of the league will finish between 7-9 and 9-7 -- moments like these resonate until January.

And for his two seasons at the helm of the 49ers, Nolan lost games like these.

There was the cataclysmic home loss against Dallas, when the young coach and his lads folded at crunch time and then hid from the media.

There was the mystifying loss at St. Louis last season, when the 49ers ran out of gas and resolve and reason in a game they should have won. There were losses to these same Cardinals that were winnable.

Throughout, Smith was the willing, smiling pupil who tried really hard -- who wanted it really badly -- but who was like his team.

He wasn't ready yet, wasn't skilled enough to do anything but learn and hope.

Then came Monday night.

Then came a grittiness we've never seen, a poise to control the happy feet and poor decisions of Smith's youth.

He fumbled, was blasted more than once, and looked poised to lose.

But he didn't. He willed his receivers to follow his lead. He moved the chains after being unable to do so all night.

And more than anything else -- he showed the kind of courage you need in a league where men not only lose games, but can also lose their health and confidence.

When Smith tore downfield, running past defenders and toward the end zone, there was a sound in this place unheard for five years.

It's called euphoria.

The last time I heard it was in the 2002 playoffs, when Jeff Garcia led an impossible comeback against the New York Giants in the playoffs.

Since then, the old gridiron built by Bill Walsh has been a tomb of mediocrity -- a chamber of unfulfilled hopes.

Smith fulfilled them on Monday. He won a game that should have been lost, took his coach off the hook, and gave the fans a reason to dream. It was just one game -- but it was so much more.

The wonderboy grew into the man.