Alex Smith ran off the field at Candlestick Park two weeks ago to a standing ovation and cheers from the sellout crowd, not much different from the reception last January when he took the 49ers oh so close to a Super Bowl.
Now relegated to a backup role with the NFC champions, Smith’s trip to the Big Easy this week leading up to Sunday’s Super Bowl against Baltimore is hardly how he envisioned it.
This used to be his team. Now, he plays Joe Flacco in practice.
Smith expected to be under center chasing the franchise’s sixth championship, not watching strong-armed second-year pro Colin Kaepernick direct the offense against Ravens star Ray Lewis and Co.
“I think a lot’s being made of that. For one, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a little bittersweet,” Smith said. “Yeah, I want to be out there. That’s what you work for. Coming into the season, that’s what I was thinking about. That was the mindset for me; that was the goal for me. At the same time, it is a team sport and these are all my teammates.”
As he has done during each such trying time in an up-and-down career full of them, Smith has handled the change with class and the shared team-first attitude that is a big reason his club made it this far.
And Smith, the No. 1 pick from the 2005 draft out of Utah, left no doubt that he would appreciate and relish the rare opportunity before him.
“Absolutely, yes, very much so,” Smith said of enjoying this experience despite the high-profile, midseason demotion.
Smith has said all the right things and quietly left much unsaid. He has stayed behind the scenes and out of the spotlight — rarely seen in the locker room, even — praising Kaepernick’s clutch decision-making and cool demeanor all the while.
“Alex has been a class act as far as handling everything that is going on,” Vernon Davis said. “He’s been through a lot. But he also understands that it’s the nature of the business. And this is a business.”
It’s not as though it was Smith’s first benching. There were several changes during the 2010 season alone.
These days, Smith’s backup job is far from complicated.
“For me, it’s just being worried about being ready to go,” Smith said. “That’s my responsibility, knowing the game plan, staying in it, staying focused in the meetings.”