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  • Hector Amezcua /

    Alex Smith said losing his starting job with the 49ers after playing well and suffering a concussion is "a tough pill to swallow."

  • Paul Kitagaki Jr. /

    Alex Smith is scheduled to make $8.5 million next season, but his contract is structured so that the 49ers would only have to pay him $1 million if the team and player part ways.

Is QB Smith's career with the 49ers over?

Published: Friday, Nov. 30, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1C
Last Modified: Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014 - 11:14 am

SANTA CLARA – Alex Smith's last pass for the 49ers went for a touchdown to Michael Crabtree. The question now becomes, was that his last pass for the 49ers?

It's important to remember that Smith has had one foot out the door before – in January 2011 – and that Jim Harbaugh reeled him back in with some Academy Award-worthy sweet talk.

There also are plenty of games to be played. Young Colin Kaepernick could falter or he could get injured. Smith could yet be reinstated as the 49ers' starter.

The 2001 Patriots are an interesting parallel. The veteran starter who was once a No. 1 overall pick, Drew Bledsoe, got hurt that season and New England's second-year quarterback, a skinny kid from Northern California named Tom Brady, led the Patriots to the playoffs.

Brady suffered a knee injury in the AFC Championship Game, and the Patriots, who would go on to win the Super Bowl, needed Bledsoe for the win that day.

But there's also a scenario building in which Smith doesn't play another snap for San Francisco. Every strong outing by Kaepernick reinforces it.

(Note: Bledsoe played five more seasons after 2001 but never again for the Patriots.)

No matter how much he tries to hammer home the we-have-two-starters message, Harbaugh has decided he likes Kaepernick more than Smith. It's hard to see Smith beating out Kaepernick next training camp.

Kaepernick is the younger option and is by far the cheaper option. He'll make $850,000 next season. Smith is scheduled to make $8.5 million. More than that, Smith's three-year contract was structured in such a way – more evidence, by the way, that Harbaugh was not truly sold on Smith – that the 49ers easily could part ways with him and owe him just $1 million.

They also could try to move him – a "Kap and trade," if you will. Or it may be that if Kaepernick's the clear starter at the end of the season, it's Smith who pushes to be released.

What kind of market would there be?

What makes the current situation so unique is that Smith was at the pinnacle of his game when he lost his job. That's what makes his demotion such "a tough pill to swallow," Smith said Thursday. But that scenario also would be a selling point for the quarterback.

His agent, Tom Condon, can tell other teams that Smith's last pass went for a touchdown. He can point out that his client was named NFC Offensive Player of the Week following his last full game. Condon can note that Smith was on a 25-of-27 passing tear and had an NFL-best 70.0 completion percentage before a concussion knocked him onto the second string.

Smith's often brutal tenure in San Francisco also is worth advertising.

He's shown true grit throughout, and after eight seasons with various offensive coordinators, he's familiar with just about every offensive scheme imaginable. A bonus: He's only 28.

There's also the intriguing possibility that Smith and offensive coordinator Greg Roman could be a package deal, one that won't require the usual growing pains because the quarterback and play caller already are in sync.

And there could be several teams seeking a head coach-starting quarterback combo.

Perhaps the best fit in that category would be Kansas City because the offense already is dedicated to the power-running ground game in which Roman is well-versed.

The juiciest possibility, however, is Arizona, which has lost seven straight games and has one quarterback, Kevin Kolb, who can't stay healthy and another, John Skelton, who can't throw completions (54.7 percent).

It would allow Roman to match wits against the coach he's been with – and has been in the shadow of – for the last four seasons, and it would give Smith a twice-a-year chance to prove to Harbaugh that he was too hasty with his 2012 quarterback decision.

A division featuring Harbaugh, Harbaugh's nemesis, Pete Carroll, as well as Harbaugh's protégé and former quarterback? The NFC West would lead the league in drama.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Matthew Barrows

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