- Mike Sando, NFL Insider
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After Sunday, Singletary might as well replace those signs with velvet paintings of dogs playing poker.
The 49ers' formula for success Sunday during their season-saving 23-20 overtime victory over the St. Louis Rams read like this:
Commit 15 penalties (one declined);
Convert zero times in 11 chances on third down (that's right, zero);
Repeatedly waste timeouts as the play clock is winding down;
Play at home against a Rams team proficient in finding ways to lose on the road;
Install at quarterback the correct Smith -- Troy, not Alex -- and prepare to marvel at the 49ers' second consecutive turnover-free performance.
That last point was the most important one Sunday as the 49ers improved to 3-6 in remaining two games behind the resurgent Seattle Seahawks in the NFC West.
Troy Smith saved the 49ers' season or, if you're a realist, postponed this rag-tag team's seemingly inevitable demise. He averaged 20.9 yards per completed pass, breathing life into the 49ers with a schoolyard approach counter to Alex Smith's order-seeking nature. Troy Smith passed for 356 yards, converted on fourth-and-18 late in regulation and set up Joe Nedney's winning 29-yard field goal with a desperation throw for tight end Delanie Walker (more on that one later).
"He made plays in crucial times," Singletary said. "That is what you want."
If not always how you want it.
With Troy Smith under center, the 49ers resemble an erratic vehicle flying through a red light, launching itself off an overpass, flipping two or three times and somehow landing wheels up on soft ground. With Alex Smith, they were more apt to proceed prudently in the slow lane, hazards flashing, their driver scarred from a few too many accidents and prone to stalling the engine at inopportune times.
"He's a playmaker, that's what I describe Troy as," 49ers tight end Vernon Davis said. "He is not afraid to let the ball go. He wants to make plays and he will do whatever he has to do to make it happen."
To be fair, a couple big plays from Alex Smith were the difference in the 49ers' victory over Oakland following an 0-5 start. But Alex Smith wasn't particularly effective before getting hurt against Carolina the next week, and there can be no turning away from Troy Smith in the short term after what happened Sunday (even though Singletary declined to name his starter against Tampa Bay in Week 11).
Troy Smith has to be the choice.
The 49ers remain in desperation mode. Troy Smith seems to thrive in desperate situations.
"He takes chances," Walker said. "We've got to believe because he believes in us. I'm going to make something happen if he believes in me."
Smith is giving the 49ers a puncher's chance. His first two completions Sunday covered 32 and 65 yards. His final pass found Michael Crabtree for the go-ahead 16-yard touchdown with 2:10 remaining in regulation.
Rookie Sam Bradford quickly led the Rams downfield for Josh Brown's tying field goal, a reminder that St. Louis remains the team with the more attractive long-term outlook, but the Rams couldn't protect Bradford in overtime. Left tackle Rodger Saffold had long since left the game with an ankle injury. His replacement, Renardo Foster, couldn't stop the 49ers' Justin Smith from sacking Bradford on third-and-5 from the St. Louis 35-yard line early in overtime.
The 49ers took over at their own 34 and Gore got them past midfield with three powerful runs.
Smith dropped back to pass on third-and-2, but he could find no one open. The Rams surrounded him. A sack appeared imminent. Smith, ever resourceful, threw for Walker in the middle of the field. Rams safety Oshiomogho Atogwe was blanketing Walker, making a completion all but impossible. But the throw drew Walker into Atogwe. The 22-yard penalty moved the 49ers into position for Nedney's game-winner.
"When Troy scrambled, I was running the same way he ran, so when I saw him stop and set his feet, I tried to come back," Walker said. "When he threw the ball, the DB never looked at the ball, he just hit me, so the ref had to call it. It could have been [ruled] uncatchable if he had turned his head, but he never turned his head, so it gave me the opportunity to get the PI."
Penalties worked both ways. The 49ers had 19- and 43-yard touchdown passes wiped out by flags.
When Smith had time, the Rams could not cover the 49ers' diverse group of receivers. Smith completed passes for 65, 38, 36, 32, 30, 23, 23, 21 and 16 yards. Gore, Walker, Davis, Crabtree and Josh Morgan all caught passes for gains of at least 21 yards.
"There are too many tremendous athletes here to not share the ball, for everybody to not have a chance and an opportunity to make a play," Smith said. "It's on me to do that."
Despite the big-play mentality, Smith and the 49ers have committed zero turnovers over their past two games. Smith fumbled once Sunday, but teammate Adam Snyder recovered. The Rams nearly picked off the third-and-16 pass Smith floated toward Davis in the fourth quarter.
"There are some things that he did that he can't do," Singletary said, refusing to elaborate. "We have to continue to clean up that and work on that. But overall, I thought he did a nice job."
The 49ers were playing tight before Troy Smith came along. They've arguably never played looser than this under Singletary or even Mike Nolan. Their methods might prove unsustainable, but at least they've got a shot. They might not ultimately succeed, but they're no longer afraid to fail.
Hang on, 49ers fans. Your team needs a five-point harness more than it needs any five-point plan.