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  • Mark Humphrey / Associated Press

    Mark Humphrey Associated Press Alex Smith receded into the shadow of Colin Kaepernick after being replaced at midseason as the 49ers' quarterback. But Smith has his health, the respect of his teammates and a lucrative future.

  • Mark Humphrey / Associated Press

    Alex Smith (11), watching Colin Kaepernick work for the cameras, is focused. "I take very seriously that it's my job to be ready," he said.

  • Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin: Alex Smith may have been replaced, but he's far from forgotten

Published: Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1C
Last Modified: Monday, Aug. 26, 2013 - 1:46 pm

NEW ORLEANS – Alex Smith wants to discuss his demotion about as much as Ray Lewis wants to talk about deer and antlers and substances he swears he didn't ingest.

But this is the NFL and this is the Super Bowl, the fast-food equivalent of a three-patty burger, double order of fries and 32-ounce soda.

It's excess and exposure. There are no hiding places. The normal escape routes (training rooms, etc.) aren't available. Players and coaches are required to attend media gatherings and entertain stupid questions, softball questions and probing questions, and strongly encouraged to entertain.

But here's the thing about Smith – he wouldn't hide anyway.

Embarrassment. Betrayal. Anger. He admits to all of these.

"Obviously, I was pissed off, frustrated to say the least," Smith said Wednesday when pressed about the timing of his demotion. "Not happy about it. But I don't get paid to make those decisions. I get paid to play football and (coach Jim Harbaugh) gets paid to make those decisions."

The midseason Smith-to-Colin Kaepernick quarterback handoff was a stunner. It was controversial and improbable, and in light of growing concerns about concussions, it was a chilling reminder about the brutality inherent in America's most popular sport. Smith doesn't lose his starting job – certainly not this abruptly – unless he absorbs that hit by St. Louis Rams linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar and walks off the field in a daze, his vision blurred, bells ringing.

It's a classic case of wrong place, wrong time, and yet in another very real sense, Smith was fortunate. He only changed roles with Kaepernick. He has his health and a contract that pays him handsomely, and in the near future, he will be on one of the handful of NFL teams desperately seeking a quality starter.

Clearly, Harbaugh made the right call. Kaepernick is entrenched as the quarterback of the present and future, a strapping 6-foot-4 wonder whose big-play potential and combination of size, speed, arm strength and intellect has the 49ers in their sixth Super Bowl.

Steve Young, Trent Dilfer, Vernon Davis, Frank Gore and Joe Staley. The list is long and expanding. Smith's most vocal supporters are embracing the inevitable. He can run, he can pass, he makes throws. He just doesn't run as fast, throw as hard (or as deep), or provide the multiple dimensions Kaepernick does in the read-option offense.

"Look where we are now," acknowledged Davis, the veteran tight end, summing up the case for the quarterback shuffle.

Yet the 49ers' locker room is thick with Smith fans. His teammates believe he can play, and many – Gore among them – believe he should be an NFL starter. They trust him. They like him. They respect him. They appreciate the way he has handled the situation, with honesty and dignity, and occasional flashes of humor and humility.

During Tuesday's mega media session, Smith jokingly noted that he was not among the star players positioned on risers and in front of microphones. On Wednesday, when one longtime Bay Area columnist said he hoped his son grows up to be like the San Diego native, Smith, known for his generosity and charitable contributions and not associated with steroids, gay bashing, off-field issues or any form of bad behavior, looked up and blushed.

Typically, Smith downplayed the moment, his preference obviously to suffer quietly and privately; these public sessions are bruising, and all athletes have egos.

"I try not to think about (the demotion)," Smith continued candidly, the words coming quickly. "I take very seriously that it's my job to be ready.

"Don't know how it's going to happen, or when, or if it ever will. You think back all offseason, to last year's run, all the time we put in at camp, talking about this moment and getting here. And now here it is, in front of us. We want a ring."

As the interview session continued, the crowd around Smith remained large for a backup player. ESPN and other national outlets are fixating on his plight – an accomplished quarterback with a large contract (owed $8.5 million if he is not traded or released) and a favorable birth certificate (he's 28). Published reports have linked Smith, an eighth-year pro, to Philadelphia, Cleveland, Jacksonville, Arizona, Kansas City and Buffalo.

"I feel like I've got my best football ahead of me," Smith said. "I was playing my best football when I got hurt. I'm getting better and better."

Asked if the read-option can endure, Smith said he is uncertain.

"The big question is can the quarterback stay healthy?" Smith said. "The quarterback is going to take more hits. Kap's done more of it. But can you live it down-in, down-out? I don't know."

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