To borrow an overused cliche—and honestly, in the NFL, is there any other kind?—one hit can change your fate.
No one knows that truth more than San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith, a superstar at Helix Charter High School near San Diego a little more than a decade ago.
In a Week 9 game against St. Louis, Smith suffered a concussion after being tackled awkwardly in the neck/back by a defender.
He was replaced by second-year prospect Colin Kaepernick, and the heavily tattooed, bicep-kissing dual threat has since taken the league by storm, breaking records along with defenders’ ankles, throwing lasers and igniting the passing game, and turning the 49ers into a multi-dimensional, high-powered offense.
After that one hit, Smith hasn’t played a single snap since, as the team, the organization—heck, even the whole NFL—have gotten swept up in the magnitude of Kaepernick’s stardom.
And as the 49ers prepare to take on the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII on Sunday, you have to wonder what might have happened to the team, and to Smith, had he not taken that one hit.
Might Smith be the one with hordes of media surrounding him, asking his feelings on being a starting quarterback in a Super Bowl? Might he be the one being mentioned in the same conversation with other great 49ers QBs Montana and Young?
“It’s tough, for sure, I’m not going to lie to you,” Smith said to reporters earlier this week at Super Bowl Media Day. “But I love our team, I love our locker room, and that’s bigger than me. You don’t pout or mope. You stay ready. The good ones stay ready.”
Reactions like that are what you should say to the world. But inside, all you can do is ask questions.
Questions like why a quarterback who was leading the league in completion percentage (70), was third in the league in passer rating (104.1) and who the week before had completed 18-19 attempts could get benched.
Questions like how someone who had led his team to within a fumbled punt of going to the Super Bowl last year could lose his job because of injury, not ineffectiveness.
Questions like how a quarterback who had amassed a 19-5 record in two years under coach Jim Harbaugh could suddenly be cast aside in favor of someone who had never taken a snap as a starter.
But such is Alex Smith’s circumstance. All because of one hit.
In the 12 weeks since Harbaugh made the decision to ride with “Kap,” Smith has handled his business like a boss. Given every opportunity to spout off at the injustice done to him, he’s been utterly selfless.
And that comes as no surprise to Damon Chase, Helix’s athletic director, who headed the department when it was Smith who was breaking records and gaining superstardom in the early 2000s.
“Alex is the epitome of class,” Chase said of the player, who also is the son of Doug Smith, the former Helix executive director. “He has always been a great teammate, competitor, and person on and off of the field.”
Smith’s 49ers teammates have taken notice too.
“No other individual could have handled this the way Alex handled it,” tight end Vernon Davis told the Los Angeles Times. “Somebody else might be going off the ledge right now, bitter and upset.”
But that’s not Smith, who told reporters that he’s just trying to be a good person and a good teammate.
“Through all of this I believe Alex has shown a tremendous amount of class, humility, loyalty and dedication. He is an outstanding individual and role model,” Chase said.
And while it was one hit and a concussion that knocked Smith out, it was perhaps his honesty that sealed his fate. Despite being medically cleared to play the week after his concussion, Smith admitted that he still had a bit of blurred vision and small headaches.
Harbaugh decided to again go with Kaepernick, and the rest, as they say …
That moment of selflessness and honesty could have the NFL brass on high alert. Already under fire for years of, shall we say, “non-prioritized” concussion policies, Smith’s circumstance of losing his job by trying to be as safe as possible is the league’s worst nightmare.
Who’s to say that the next player with a concussion will choose to come back too early at the risk of getting Kaepernick’d?
“I understand the somewhat dilemma,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said of reporting injuries to reporters earlier this week. “The highest priority needed is players rising their hand when they have an injury. But I believe very strongly there’s a difference between a medical decision and a football decision. I’m glad (Smith) came forward and identified he had an injury.”
Fair or unfair, Smith is no longer calling the shots and leading his team into battle.
“It’s not about fair, that’s not what this is about,” Smith said. “We play football. I’m the backup. That’s what it is.”
“I am not sure that fair is a word that can be applied to the NFL,” he said. ”I think what has transpired is unfortunate for (Alex) as a QB in the NFL. It has definitely shown that the NFL is a cutthroat business, based on wins and success.”
But Smith doesn’t regret his decision for a second.
Given what Kaepernick has accomplished in his nine games as the Niners starter – 222 passing yards/game, 13 TDs against only 4 INT, 63 percent completion percentage, 506 rushing yards, 5 rushing TDs – there are few who would doubt his burgeoning emergence into not just a good, but a great starting quarterback.
But you’d also be hard pressed to find anyone to argue that Smith shouldn’t be a starter in the NFL as well, especially considering his success the past two seasons.
And he may well get his chance to do so again. Smith is under contract for $8.5 million next season. With Kaepernick’s emergence, that is a luxury that San Francisco cannot afford.
A trade is a likely scenario, and there are several teams (New York Jets, Cleveland Browns, Arizona Cardinals, Jacksonville Jaguars, Kansas City Chiefs) that have glaring weaknesses at the quarterback position, and ideally, the Niners would like to get something of value back for their starter of eight years.
However, earlier this week, Smith asked the organization to grant him a release before the start of free agency on March 1, which would allow the quarterback to pick his destination, and theoretically sign a long-term contract. Whatever route he takes, it seems increasingly likely that Smith’s tenure in the Bay Area is over.
One hit changed Alex Smith’s circumstance. It’s possible that it will even change the course of his career. But one hit won’t change the person.
“Alex is a tremendous competitor,” said Chase. ”I am sure because of what he has been through in his career in (San Francisco) and the direction he was heading as a leader and captain of the team, that it definitely hurts to be put in that situation.
“But he is an outstanding individual and role model. He will be successful in whatever he does on and off of the field.”