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COHN: Alex Smith can leave 49ers with head held high

Over the past two seasons under Jim Harbaugh, 49ers quarterback Alex Smith threw 30 touchdowns and only 10 interceptions while completing 64 percent of his passes.

PRESS DEMOCRAT
Published: Sunday, February 24, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, February 25, 2013 at 9:05 a.m.

We assume Alex Smith will not be a 49er next season.

We assume the 49ers will trade him. They will not release him because they would get nothing in return, and that's just bad business.

One way or another, he is gone.

So how do we remember Smith, the first pick in the 2005 draft? He never deserved to go first, not in an Aaron-Rodgers draft. Picking Smith so high, placing all those expectations on him, was the 49ers' fault. He suffered for his lofty draft status and his lofty contract — none of it his fault.

And he was not a bust. He is a good quarterback who, unfortunately for him, is not a hell of a quarterback.

He improved every year despite the chaos that was the Niners until Jim Harbaugh took over. He is efficient. He is brilliant before a play at the line of scrimmage when he speed-reads the defense and always — yes always — makes the right call. Colin Kaepernick is no speed-reader, not yet. Look at Kaepernick's final series in the Super Bowl. As a reader, he was moving his lips.

Smith led the league in completion percentage when he suffered a concussion on Nov. 11 — not his fault. He lost his job because he told the truth about the concussion — telling the truth is admirable. And he lost his job because Kaepernick took over and is, or probably will be, a hell of a quarterback.

Smith had his moment of greatness when he led successive touchdown drives on Jan. 14, 2012 in the playoffs against the Saints. He ran for a 28-yard TD capping off an 80-yard TD drive. The Saints came back and scored a TD and took the lead. Then Smith directed an 85-yard touchdown drive and won the game with nine seconds left when he hit Vernon Davis with a 14-yard TD pass. He threw three touchdown passes with no interceptions. He was not a mere game manager. He was a game maker. He played the game of his life and it was, well, a hell of a game.

But he has a flaw. Maybe “flaw” is too strong a word. He is an intellectual and a perfectionist and he waits for the perfect conditions before throwing the ball. That means he wants absolute assurance the receiver is open before he throws and that is no way to operate. Because he waits he sometimes loses his moment and then he gets sacked.

The best quarterbacks are daring, take chances. Think Brett Favre. Think Steve Young. Think Dan Marino. There is a certain amount of faith between quarterback and receiver — “Just throw it and I'll catch it.” But Smith does not have that faith, does not understand there are more great catches than great throws. Kaepernick understands this basic truth and lets it rip.

We will remember Smith as a man with good manners. Good manners are so underrated these days. He never complained when Harbaugh benched him even though Smith could make a case the benching was unfair. He said “it sucks.” That's as far as he went, but he never said, “Harbaugh sucks.”

He handled being the No.1 quarterback with grace and then he handled not being the No.1 quarterback with equal grace.

He mentored Kaerpernick after Kaepernick took his job.

He never ever bought into the Jim-Harbaugh, closed-lipped, wartime ethos that the media is the enemy, and the fans don't need to know squat.

He never participated in the Harbaugh media lockdown, never bought into that silliness. Davis has not bought into it, either. Smith was usually available to talk, would answer questions at length, would answer them sincerely, a distinct difference from Kaerpernick who responds in code, in sentences of about five words, or in sentence fragments you would need the Rosetta Stone to decipher.

In New York, they would call Smith a mensch. In Yiddish mensch means a person of integrity and honor. A mensch is the essence of what a person should be. Smith is a mensch. He has been a mensch on the Niners where there is so much coach and peer pressure not to be a mensch.

During the NFL lockout Smith led Camp Alex at San Jose State, led it when he didn't even have a contract. He kept the team together and, after practices, he would meet the reporters by a fence in the shade and talk about team togetherness. He treated the Niners generously. They have not treated him generously.

He is a better-than-average quarterback. With the right coaching, he could be an excellent quarterback. He is young, only 28 — we forget that — and he still is improving. He certainly is. He would be perfect for the Kansas City Chiefs or the Cleveland Browns or the Arizona Cardinals.

Don't count him out. He may still put his imprint on the NFL and has time to write a boffo second chapter.

We pull for that.

For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at cohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at lowell.cohn@pressdemocrat.com.

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