SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Alex Smith never got a chance to help during an embarrassing shutout loss to Tampa Bay last year.
He watched from the sideline as former coach Mike Singletary chose Troy Smith to start instead.
Smith did in the Buccaneers this time, throwing two of his three touchdown passes to Vernon Davis and leading the San Francisco 49ers to a 48-3 win Sunday for their best start in nine years.
Carlos Rogers returned an interception 31 yards for a touchdown and tight ends Davis and Delanie Walker each caught TD passes of 20-plus yards in San Francisco’s third straight win since blowing a late lead in a Sept. 18 overtime loss to the Cowboys.
Frank Gore ran for a touchdown in his second straight 100-yard rushing game, but a late injury to wide receiver Joshua Morgan put a damper on what had been a near-perfect day.
If anybody questioned how good these Niners (4-1) really were after wins against teams such as Seattle or Cincinnati, the past two weeks are more telling: a comeback win at Philadelphia last Sunday followed by a lopsided home win over the former NFC South leader.
Josh Freeman never found the flow that made him so effective in the rout here last November and the Bucs (3-2) were a step behind in a short week after beating the Colts on Monday night.
Tampa Bay lost its cool, too — and lost a share of the South lead in the process.
A testy Bucs coach Raheem Morris received an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty with 9:05 left in the third quarter for yelling in the face of line judge Mark Steinkerchner.
Just more than five minutes later, safety Sean Jones had a late hit to Kendall Hunter’s head after the play was over. Linebacker Dekoda Watson was flagged for an unsportsmanlike penalty 4 seconds into the fourth quarter that set up Davis’ second TD catch.
With Smith making all the right calls behind center, those occasional Blue Angels flyovers for Fleet Week just added some extra entertainment on a gorgeous fall afternoon in the Bay Area.
A 2½-point favorite coming in, the 49ers delivered a shocking blowout. Smith made his mark, going 11 for 19 for 170 yards and no sacks or interceptions before giving way to rookie backup Colin Kaepernick midway through the fourth.
The 49ers are 4-1 for the first time since 2002, the last time the franchise had a winning record and reached the playoffs — four head coaches ago.
Next up will be the biggest test yet: a Week 6 road game at Detroit, with the Lions unbeaten heading into Monday night’s home game with the Bears.
San Francisco came out of halftime with an 80-yard, seven-play scoring drive capped by Davis’ 23-yard TD grab. Walker caught a 26-yard pass for the 49ers’ on their opening drive of the game.
David Akers kicked field goals of 37 and 27 yards.
The big plays are coming in all phases — from Smith and Co. on offense, from special teams, from the defense.
Even the kickers did their part to give San Francisco solid field position.
That worked out nicely for Smith, who these days is generating constant cheers from the Candlestick Park crowd that has let him have it with boos so many times in recent years.
One of his shining moments Sunday came when Smith had nearly gone to the ground under pressure and he released the ball at the last second and found Morgan on the left sideline for a 13-yard gain. Morgan made five catches for 75 yards before the injury.
It’s those kind of situations where the old Smith would have been clobbered or sacked for a big loss. His decision-making has been spot on so far.
By halftime, Smith had hit four different receivers on completions of 12 yards or longer.
Rogers’ third interception of the season, on a pass intended for Kellen Winslow early in the second quarter, stopped any momentum Tampa Bay might have gained after Gore fumbled deep in Bucs’ territory.
Rookie Chris Culliver thwarted the next Buccaneers’ drive with his first career interception.
Dashon Goldson provided a nice block on Freeman as Rogers stepped into the end zone on the right side, then Goldson forced a fumble by Mike Williams late in the third that was recovered Ray McDonald.
Smith completed his first four passes including the TD strike to Walker on the team’s opening drive when the tight end beat three defenders.
Smith has emerged, at last, as a reliable, confident playmaker behind center. Nothing fancy, but more methodical in coach Jim Harbaugh’s expansive West Coast offense.
These 49ers, alone atop the NFC West, are determined not to waste another strong start the way they did two years ago.
Smith was part of the team that began 3-1 in 2009, but wound up dropping their next four games and five of six on the way to an 8-8 finish.
Freeman went 17 for 33 for 187 yards with two interceptions and two sacks.