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San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith (11) throws against the New Orleans Saints in the first quarter of an NFL divisional playoff football game Saturday, Jan. 14, 2012, in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

After the most important, most thrilling victory of his professional career, Alex Smith strode slowly to midfield, a baseball cap atop his head and zero hint of satisfaction across his face. He slapped a few hands and patted a few backs and walked into the 49ers locker room, where Joe Cool might have been mistaken for Joe Montana, or so it seemed on Saturday.

Smith, once the weak link of a proud franchise in decline, once a bust, played the game of his career on the afternoon it mattered most. He threw for 299 yards and three touchdowns and ran for another score in the 36-32 win. Twice, when Drew Brees and New Orleans took the lead late in the fourth quarter, Smith answered them. Not the 49ers defence, which had been the star early on. Not another quarterback. Smith, strange as that may sound.

Now in his seventh season, Smith will play in the National Football Conference championship game next weekend with a berth in the Super Bowl at stake. He is proof that a struggling player can remain humble and respectful and still ultimately succeed.

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Afterward, as he stepped behind the lectern, he wore a mechanic's blue work shirt, "Alex" scribbled in script across the tag. This seemed fitting for a quarterback who played under an astonishing seven offensive co-ordinators in seven seasons and rarely, if ever, voiced complaints, who went to work when critics said he should retire, who was booed, for years, at home.

"We're still playing," Smith said. "That's what it means."

Smith could have unleashed a chorus of I-told-you-so's toward the fan base that lost faith in him, or the front office that set him up for failure. Instead, he remained as classy in victory as in defeat; years and years and years of defeat.

This did not surprise Dan Mullen, Smith's quarterback coach at the University of Utah. Mullen is the last position coach to instruct Smith for more than a single season. Think about that. Since Mullen coached Smith in college, Mullen has switched jobs twice. The quarterback coaches Smith has had during his NFL career have switched jobs after every single season.

Mullen, who had Smith in his wedding party, watched the 49ers game from his office at Mississippi State, where he is the coach. As Smith led one late go-ahead touchdown drive, then another, as he squeezed the final touchdown pass into the smallest window and the hands of tight end Vernon Davis, Mullen jumped up and down in his office. Unfortunately, he was hosting a recruit.

"Thankfully, he had already committed," Mullen said in a telephone interview.

In Smith on Saturday, Mullen saw a pupil who never wavered in commitment. He saw a player he still considers "the best" he has coached.

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"He's one of those guys who's so cerebral, he invests so much time in thinking about and studying the game," Mullen said. "He could never get comfortable in the NFL with all the change."

This year, Smith did not win games so much as he did not lose them. The 49ers finished 26th in total offence, and according to the Elias Sports Bureau, no team that ended up outside the top 25 has ever won a Super Bowl.

Smith's progress was accompanied by backhanded compliments. He was a "game manager" who threw five interceptions on the season, a steady, if unspectacular, player surrounded by a solid team. That he set career highs in passing yardage (3,144) and completion percentage (61.3) only underscored how much he struggled previously.

"Along the way, there has been a lot of stress, doubt and criticism," Davis said. "Especially for Alex. But when I look at that kid, I look at him as a warrior. You can just imagine a little kid standing there and getting picked on in grade school, rocks thrown at him, spit on. Alex is one of those guys. I want to see him be successful."

Smith appeared to gain confidence as the year went on, buoyed by a dominant defenxe and power running game. So when the 49ers trailed, 24-23, with 2:18 remaining, and one of the assistant coaches suggested a naked bootleg, Smith pounced, making it known that was the play he wanted called.

With the Saints sold out to Smith's right, he turned around and cut left, behind offensive tackle Joe Staley, who would later say he told himself to run "as fast as I could, because Alex runs faster than me, but just a little bit." As the crowd rose, Smith scampered up the sideline, toward the end zone, his 28-yard jaunt good for a 29-24 lead.

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As the final minutes ticked away in frantic fashion, Smith said he could sense a different feeling on the 49ers sideline from that of seasons past: no panic, a team certain it belonged. He could just as easily have been talking about himself.

In the NFC title game Eli Manning of the Giants. Smith will again be cast as the 49ers' weakness, as the reason they will lose.

But perhaps Mullen is onto something. "He's putting it all together now," Mullen said. "All I'm saying is, look out."

The New York Times News Service

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