Unless something out of the ordinary occurs, Smith will finish his eighth and presumably last season with the 49ers by standing on the Superdome sideline, holding his helmet to his ear to hear the offensive coordinator's play calls and then checking his wristband to mimic Kaepernick's actions on the field. If the 49ers beat Baltimore, Smith will have earned a championship ring but not by participating in the Super Bowl, necessarily.
"It's tough to take at times, for sure," he said.
Yet Smith apparently is consoled, more than frustrated, by the knowledge that he was playing the best football of his NFL career when his concussion led to Kaepernick's opportunity. He'll be marketable in 2013, whether the 49ers trade or release him.
"I want to play football," said Smith, who's still only 28. "I'm excited for my next opportunity, wherever that comes."
In a helpful attempt to give his own story some context, he's retelling the story of how Utah quarterback Brett Elliott's wrist injury gave Smith a chance that he never surrendered, just as Kaepernick has done. Elliott never complained publicly, either; he transferred to a Division III school after that 2003 season and eventually played his way into a brief NFL career.
Is there an equivalent of Linfield College in Smith's future? The possibilities are intriguing, even if there's not an immediate Super Bowl contender among them. A quarterback with a 19-5-1 record over two seasons may attract interest from Buffalo, Arizona, Kansas City or Philadelphia.
"There's always a market, because everybody needs a quarterback," said former NFL coach Brian Billick.
"I think he'll get a chance to start elsewhere," said NFL Network analyst Steve Mariucci, another former coach. "I think the perception is it needs to be a certain kind of team a defensive, run-first, play-action, movement kind of team. But there are a dozen teams or so that run versions of the West Coast offense."
He might even fit in Philadelphia with former Oregon coach Chip Kelly's spread offense, which somewhat resembles the scheme Smith ran under Urban Meyer at Utah. The irony of his replacement's emergence is Smith was executing the read-option play in college when Kaepernick was in eighth grade.
While he made a conscious decision not to complain about coach Jim Harbaugh's decision being the son of a high school principal gave him no choice, he acknowledged Smith could be forgiven for questioning why this happened to him. Having played through all kinds of turmoil, coaching changes and injuries to get the 49ers within one game of the Super Bowl last year and keep them on track again this season, he played the game of his life in what became his last 60-minute performance.
Smith completed 18 of 19 passes for 232 yards and three touchdowns in an Oct. 29 win over Arizona, then suffered the concussion in the second quarter of the next game. While being medically kept out of only one game, he has thrown only one pass since then.
"I was playing my best football at the time, right before the injury," Smith said. "In that sense, yeah, you're frustrated, you're disappointed, but you deal with it."
Smith's only choice for now is to prepare as if, somehow, he'll play Sunday.
After that, he can decide how to answer all the questions that keep coming this week, regarding his future.
Smith vs. Kaepernick
Regular-season stats for 49ers' QBs
Alex Smith (below left)
G/S Co-Att Pct Yrd TD INT Rat.
10/9 153-218 70.2 1,737 13 5 104.1
Colin Kaepernick (below right)
G/S Co-Att Pct Yrd TD INT Rat.
13/7 136-218 62.4 1,814 10 3 98.3