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Smith blends into background as 49ers' backup QB

The SportsXchange

NEW ORLEANS -- It's been 10 games since Alex Smith started for the 49ers, and most of the reminders that Colin Kaepernick is No. 1 on the depth chart aren't so subtle.

Take Wednesday morning, for example. Players were scattered throughout a ballroom at their hotel after coach Jim Harbaugh ended a press conference with a horde of media. Prominent players were given podiums and those like Pro Bowl talents Patrick Willis and Joe Staley were greeted with layers of cameras and microphones from their position on the risers. Being the starting quarterback at the Super Bowl, Colin Kaepernick got a stage of his own, too.

Smith? He was seated with peripheral roster fillers and backups at his own round table, about eight feet in diameter with nine chairs encircling the table. Subtle it wasn't, but a stark reminder to the popular captain that the show isn't his.

"The podium thing is kind of funny. Pick your battles," said Smith, smirking while surveying the lay of the land in the ballroom. "There are things to fight over and there are things to not."

Smith lost his job when he suffered a concussion on Nov. 11, opening the door for Kaepernick's coming-out party in that overtime loss to the Rams. He was winning -- 6-1 -- and producing. Smith was second in the NFL in passer rating at the time of his injury.

Harbaugh, who was a starter and a backup quarterback in the NFL, said Smith's professionalism has shone through on a daily basis at the team's Santa Clara practice facility. Smith pores over game film and partners with Kaepernick to review every game plan. That, barring injury or unexpected circumstance, will be his role through Sunday's game.

"It's different because obviously you have a new role. You go from taking all the reps in practice, being the starter, playing on game day to a different role," Smith said. "You're not getting the reps in practice. You're doing the scout team. You still have to prepare.

"You don't know when you're going to get a chance to go back in and just trying to stay ready. On game day, it's not your show. Only one guy can go out there and take the snaps. ... I had to adjust obviously."

Offensive coordinator Greg Roman praised Smith's approach to his new role, crediting the former No. 1 overall pick for steadfastly tackling every opportunity as if he would be the starter. That's a big reason why many players still endorse Smith over Kaepernick privately, and running back Frank Gore did so publicly. Smith welcomes the support but isn't stirring controversy.

"It's flattering, I guess, obviously. I want to play football," Smith said. "I'm not hiding that fact. I love this team. I love being a part of it and of what's going on, but I want to play football. I said this all day (Tuesday), but all this stuff can wait. (I'm) flattered. Anytime a guy like Frank says something about you that's positive, it's flattering. But like I said, I'm just trying to push all that off."

Smith will likely have resolution to his long-term future in the next 40 days. Prior to the start of free agency in March, the 49ers' intention is to make Smith available via trade. The Jets, Browns, Bills, Chiefs and Eagles could be among his suitors.

If an amenable trade cannot be found, Smith could be released. The respectful manner in which he's navigated the demotion, and his positive progress on the field in two years under Harbaugh could bring a healthy contract. Smith is due a $1 million roster bonus on March 12, and his contract includes $8.5 million guaranteed in 2013.

"I haven't talked to them," Smith said of how he'll handle the end-game with management. "I'm sure when we get back there will be plenty of time to sit down with Jim (Harbaugh) and Trent (Baalke) and see what's what.

"This is a business. I don't really look at it like that. They're going to do what's best. That's their job. They're going to do what's best for the team. I don't really know what that is. Obviously, that's a better question for them. I don't necessarily think there is a right thing to do. We'll see. I don't know what the options are. I obviously need to explore those after Sunday."

The Ravens aren't hiding the plan for mobile backup Tyrod Taylor to see the field in certain packages during Super Bowl XLVII. For Smith, there is no such promise, only slim possibility.

"Of course you understand the desire to play and to start. Alex, we expect that and we talk about that and he has provided that," Harbaugh said. "He goes into every game with that mentality, preparing like a starter and ready to play. Before every game I talk to him about it, 'Be ready to go today.' It's obvious through his preparation during the week that he's ready to go."
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