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December 17, 2012
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The end of Alex?

In a hostile environment, with the rain pouring down and all the momentum swinging against him, Colin Kaepernick dropped back to pass, he read the Patriot blitz and fired a strike to Michael Crabtree. With an inside move and a dash to the end zone, the Kaepernick-to-Crabtree 38-yard touchdown connection was the defining moment of Sunday’s game and will likely be the play that ultimately punches Alex Smith’s ticket out of San Francisco.

With Sunday night’s victory over Tom Brady and the Patriots, the Kaepernick bandwagon is officially full.

Smith’s, on the other hand, has a lot of empty seats, and former No. 1 passenger Jim Harbaugh is no where to be found.

There were a few Smith holdovers coming into this past week, myself included, but after watching what Kaepernick did against one of the AFC’s top teams under the bright lights of the primetime stage, I think the 49er faithful have found their horse.

So what to do with the other horse? Keep him as an overpriced back up? Maybe. More likely, he will be cut and shipped off to another stable to be some other city’s under appreciated problem.

It’s unfortunate for the 2005 No. 1 overall pick because he was never given a fair shake in the NFL. The often-criticized quarterback battled through all the obstacles put in front of him, and there were many (three head coaches, seven offensive coordinators, 17 different starting wide receivers, multiple shoulder injuries) and proved he could compete at the elite level only to lose his job to injury, and now it looks as if he will be looking for a new team as well.

From day one, Smith had the deck stacked against him. Coming into the league, he joined 49ers at their worst and in the shadow of so many great quarterbacks before him. Smith got nine starts as a rookie under then-coach Mike Nolan, throwing only one touchdown to 11 interceptions. But let’s be honest their aren’t a lot of options when your running back is Kevan Barlow and your wide outs are Arnaz Battle and a very raw Brandon Lloyd.

In his sophomore season, Smith made steady progression under the guidance of new offensive coordinator Norv Turner. Starting all 16 games, Smith threw 16 touchdowns and 16 interceptions and looked to be the quarterback of the future.

In 2007, Turner left for the Chargers, and the injuries began for Smith. A misdiagnosed shoulder injury left him recovering for an extended period of time and also left him open for criticism from the media and from his coaches.

The next few years were a calamity of inconsistency. Sometimes he looked good, and other times he looked deplorable.

Smith knew it too. He took a sizable pay cut to stay with the 49ers, feeling that he owed the organization for the years he didn’t live up to expectations.

It wasn’t until the 2011 season that 49er fans finally saw Smith thrive. Under the Harbaugh regime, Smith was a new man. No more looking over his shoulder at the guy behind him, just looking forward to the many weapons the 49ers had accumulated (Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree, Frank Gore and a formidable defense).

In 2011, Smith led San Francisco to its best record since 1997 and broke 49er records for most game-winning drives in a single season (6), most fourth-quarter comebacks (6), fewest interceptions in a single season (5) and most pass attempts without an interception (249, the previous record was 184 by Steve Young) — all this to go with an NFC West title and a thrilling victory over the favored Saints in the playoffs.

How is Smith’s progress rewarded? Harbaugh flirts with Peyton Manning in the offseason, but when that falls through, he comes back to Smith with the “it’s always been you” speech. Yet we now know he was looking in Kaepernick’s direction while sweet talking Smith.

That brings us to this season. Smith was having another strong season, completing 70 percent of his passes and throwing 13 touchdowns to only five interceptions while leading the 49ers to a 6-2-1 record. Despite trying to play through a concussion, Smith is forced to sit out a week — a week that led to eventual demotion. Kaepernick, to his credit, has seized the opportunity with a 4-1 record since taking over, including wins over the Saints, Bears, Dolphins and Patriots.

Kaepernick is what the 49ers had hoped Alex Smith would’ve been in his early years — a big arm with legs to match. With his ability to make big plays and scrappy style, the second-year man out of Turlock has captivated the 49er fan base and all but packed Smith’s bags for him.

For Smith, if this is his last season in the Bay, I do believe he will find another team, likely as a back up, but adversity is nothing new for the veteran out of the University of Utah.

I’m sure there are plenty of teams looking for a guy who is always improving, is loyal, is a student of the game and is in the prime of his career.

To contact Sports Writer Walter Ford call (530) 477-4232 or email him at wford@theunion.com


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The Union Updated Dec 17, 2012 10:36PM Published Dec 20, 2012 07:34AM Copyright 2012 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.