As I watched Alex Smith hit Michael Crabtree for a touchdown against the Rams, I had no idea it would likely be the last throw I’d ever see him make in a 49ers uniform. Smith left the game after that drive with a concussion, and Colin Kaepernick led the team back from 10 points down in the fourth quarter to ultimately tie the Rams.
Kaepernick moved the ball in ways that 49ers fans haven’t seen since the Steve Young era. He escaped pressure, he checked to different plays, he displayed incredible arm strength, he was accurate, he wasn’t afraid to make a tough throw. He was everything Smith has never been.
I was doing mental gymnastics for the entire week leading up to the Saints game. Will it be Smith or Kaepernick? Smith is the starter. He has to start if healthy. But Kaepernick was so good in every facet of the game, he’s clearly more physically gifted, and he probably gives the team the best shot to win.
The 49ers fan in me wanted Kaepernick to start. The Smith apologist, the sympathetic part of me, wanted Smith to start.
Ultimately the sympathetic part of me took over, and I tried to deny any truth to the reports that Kaepernick was starting. Look at what Smith has been through with this team. He’s been benched in favor of Troy Smith, he’s been booed off the field, fans have chanted against him and pined for David Carr. David freaking Carr! And what did Smith do after all of that? He stuck around, kept his chin up and eventually led them to not only a playoff win, but the most magnificent playoff win in recent memory.
Smith firmly etched his name in 49ers lore with the “Vernon Post.” Everything that Smith had done wrong over the first six years of his career was finally erased. He seemed to have gotten over the hump. He put the team on his back and took down the New Orleans Saints in the unlikeliest of shootouts.
Then the NFC Championship Game came, and with it Smith mostly floundered again against a suffocating Giants defense that eventually went on to win the Super Bowl. He went into free agency, and after the 49ers unsuccessfully courted Peyton Manning, he came back.
The Smith fan in me was ecstatic to have him back. I told myself he hadn’t reached his ceiling. He was developing into the quarterback I knew he could be, and he would lead this team to a championship. Sure, Kaepernick was the future, but Smith had unfinished business to take care of first. He had a legacy to cap in San Francisco. He had doubters to silence. I, and many others, were behind him the whole way.
It may be indicative of the heartless business that is the NFL, but Smith lost his starting role with his concussion. Now Kaepernick has taken over and shined, and looks unlikely that he will relinquish his role as the team’s starting quarterback. I’m fine with that, but part of me is still uncomfortable with the way it happened.
It has nothing to do with a dislike of Kaepernick or doubting that he can take this team where it wants to go. Instead, it has everything to do with the way it happened. This wasn’t how Smith’s career in San Francisco was supposed to end. Kaepernick was supposed to take over, but not under these circumstances.
The human side of me can’t shake this sick feeling in my stomach. Smith did nothing to play out of the job, and it pains me to see a guy who has been through so much standing healthy on the sidelines as his backup goes out and wins football games.
Kaepernick is the future of the 49ers without question. But 2012 was supposed to be Smith’s last shot to silence all of the doubters, and now he won’t have that shot. Unfortunately for Smith, the future is now, and he, like the rest of us, will sit back and watch Kaepernick set off fireworks every time he drops back to pass.
As the season progresses, it seems clear that Kaepernick has the tools to take this team to the pinnacle of NFL success. The future for the 49ers is brighter than ever. But I won’t forget to glance in the rearview mirror for number 11, because Smith will forever have a place in the hearts and minds of many. He was beaten down so many times, and he continued to get back up until he finally found success. I will forever admire him for that, and he will forever be one of my favorite NFL players because of it.
Thanks for the memories, Alex.