By Len Pasquarelli
92.9 The Game/NFL reporter
New Orleans – Not since Phil Simms hobbled around the media sessions in the days preceding Super Bowl XXV, a broken right foot nudging New York Giants’ backup Jeff Hostetler into the lineup for the championship game, has a backup quarterback prompted as much attention prior to a title tilt as Alex Smith of San Francisco precipitated here on Tuesday at the annual “Media Day” circus.
It would be hyperbole to suggest that Smith, who lost his starting job to second-year pro Colin Kaepernick when he sustained a concussion, elicited a crowd even larger than some of the San Francisco standouts.
But it was close.
Like a Pied Piper, Smith was followed onto the Superdome sideline by a parade of folks with notebooks, tape recorders and minicams. Most backups, whether it be in a Super Bowl or a meaningless end-of-the season/play-out-the-string contest, don’t merit the kind of escort Smith received. It sez here, he’d better get used to it. For a guy with the most common of surnames, Smith has received uncommon attention. And in the next week or two, the profile is likely to grow.
Kaepernick is the Niners’ quarterback of the now and future, coach Jim Harbaugh winning his gamble on the 2011 second-rounder by virtue of the fact the former Nevada star has piloted the team one game beyond Smith’s apex of a year ago. The 49ers reached the NFC championship game in 2011 under smith’s guidance and lost. Armed in part with the convenience of Smith’s concussed noggin, Harbaugh turned the starting job over to Kaepernick, a move some San Francisco coaches and players privately told 92.9 The Game that he had been tempted to do ever before Smith’s gray matter was bruised.
Things have worked out swimmingly for Harbaugh and Kaepernick. As for Smith, who was an estimable 20-6-1 since Harbaugh sweet-talked him into re-signing as an unrestricted free agent in 2011 for one year, well, things figure to work out there as well. In the days following Super Bowl XLVII, Smith will be traded or released. And there will be a healthy market for the man who was the first overall pick in the 2005 draft, one inflated perhaps by the notable aplomb he has demonstrated since losing his starting job.
To his credit, Smith hasn’t rocked the boat, and much time has been spent already this week by Harbaugh and Kaepernick lauding his willingness to serve as mentor of sorts to his one-time backup. Don’t think Smith’s magnanimity has gone unnoticed around the league. “Everyone thinks it’s been a classy act,” one NFC coach told 92.9 The Game on Tuesday night. “That’s going to count for something.”
Speaking of counting for something, a look at the trumped-up three-year, $24 million contract that Smith signed in March to return to the 49ers: He received no signing bonus, but instead a roster bonus of $3 million and a guaranteed base salary of $5 million. Upon further inspection, the three-year contract is essentially a one-year deal that the 49ers can squeeze out of with only a modicum of financial hurt. The devil is always in the details when it comes to contracts. And Smith’s agent, the estimable agent, Tom Condon of CAA, has a way of making the details heavenly for his quarterback clients.
The way the contract is structured, Smith will receive a $1 million roster bonus the second week of March, probably the 12th-14th, based on the start of the so-called “league year,” which has yet to be officially determined. He is also guaranteed $1 million of his $7.5 million base salary for 2013. But if he’s on the roster April 1, all $7.5 million is guaranteed. And so the countdown to the end of Smith’s eight-year tenure in the Bay Area has basically commenced. He and Condon can start ripping days off the calendar.
Augmenting the likely market, and perhaps the 49ers’ ability to sell Smith via trade at a bloated price tag, is the quarterback market in the 2013 draft, and the fact that so many franchises seem set at the position. There are probably only a handful of teams that need a quarterback, but there doesn’t appear to be a slam-dunk instant starter in the ’13 draft class, one commensurate to Cam Newton or Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III. Geno Smith of West Virginia is more potential than production. USC’s Matt Barkley has seen his stock drop. The bevy of SEC quarterback who were potential first-rounders seven months ago all look to have warts now. The upshot is that there are still 4-5 teams who need a starter, at least a guy who can bridge the move to a younger quarterback down the road. And Smith has demonstrated with his patience and ability to say the right thing, even on the biggest of stages, that he is up to the task.
As for Kaepernick, well, the 49ers struck gold of sorts with his contract, too. He is making only about $608,000 this season and is scheduled to earn roughly $741,000 in 2013. What about a renegotiation, you say? A new deal that would handsomely reward him if he leads the 49ers to a win on Sunday night? Well, the new collective bargaining agreement precludes teams from re-doing rookie contracts until after three seasons. So it might be Kaepernick who hoists the Vince Lomardi Trophy on Sunday, but it will be his understudy who will benefit the most financially for now.