SANTA CLARA The man who lost his job to Colin Kaepernick is among those most impressed by what Kaepernick has accomplished this season.
And it's not Kaepernick's foot speed or the zip on his passes that have been most striking, Alex Smith said Wednesday.
"It's the lack of young mistakes that has really jumped out at me," Smith said. "Most young guys come in yeah, they show flashes, and they think they can play good at times. But then they also seem to have those young moments as well, you know, rookie moments and kind of boneheaded things.
"And he hasn't done it. He's played good ball. He's really played patient and played smart."
Smith was having the best season of his career, had a 104.1 passer rating and had led the 49ers to a 6-2 record when he suffered a concussion Nov. 11. Kaepernick had a stunningly successful starting debut the following week against Chicago, and the week after that, coach Jim Harbaugh made the critical and controversial decision to stick with Kaepernick over a healthy Smith.
Smith has deflected questions about his future in recent weeks, but some of his teammates, including close friend Joe Staley, said they realize the Super Bowl could be the last time Smith is in a 49ers uniform.
The 49ers will owe Smith his full 2013 salary $8.5 million if he is on the roster April 1. They are unlikely to pay a backup that amount, and Smith is unlikely to want to be part of a team that has an established starter.
"Obviously, there's a good chance it will be (Smith's last game)," Staley said. "I'm still going to be great friends with him. Our relationship's not going to end. BFF's, you know?"
The Jets, Chiefs and division rival Cardinals are among the teams that will be looking for a starting quarterback in the offseason. With the draft expected to be light on quarterbacks, Smith could get plenty of attention.
He won't be hurt by how he's handled the difficult events this season.
As the backup, Smith has given tips to Kaepernick and mimicked the opponent's quarterback in practice. Smith said he'll prepare for the Super Bowl as a starter in case Kaepernick gets injured, and he'll also take snaps in practice in the role of Ravens starter Joe Flacco.
"I say hats off to him because he could have been walking around here with his head down being a pain," center Jonathan Goodwin said. "But he hasn't. He's been Alex. He's been great and supportive of Kap. And that says a lot about Alex as a person."
Smith, who came within overtime of leading the 49ers into the Super Bowl last year, admitted he had mixed emotions about watching Kaepernick reach the game this year.
"I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a little bittersweet," Smith said. "Yeah, I want to be out there. It's what you work for coming into the season. That was the mindset; that was the goal for me.
"But at the same time, it is a team sport, and these are my teammates. You go through so much together, especially these guys who have been here for a chunk of time. If you can't be happy, there's something wrong with you."
Smith said he got the starting job at Utah after starter Brett Elliott was injured in 2003 and that it would be hypocritical of him to fume over what happened this season.
Smith led the Utes to a win over Cal the following week that season and remained the starter until declaring for the NFL draft.
"It's the nature of sports, you know?" Smith said of Kaepernick's rise. "Yeah, he got an opportunity, stepped up and made the most of it. That's the deal."