Barrows: Honesty could cost 49ers' Alex Smith his job

Tuesday , March 18, 2014 - 4:33 PM

Matthew Barrows

By all accounts, the person who kept Alex Smith out of Monday’s game and set the San Francisco 49ers’ current quarterback soap opera spinning was Alex Smith.

He took nearly all of the first-team practice repetitions early in the week leading up to the Chicago Bears game. But by Saturday of that week, something wasn’t right. And he told the 49ers’ coaches and team doctors.

"I tried to push it and went out and practiced, and I just wasn’t right, and the doctors didn’t end up clearing me," Smith said earlier this week. " ... Tried to push it earlier in the week, and there were still some lingering things."

Smith did the smart and sensible thing, one that neurologists, the players’ union, Commissioner Roger Goodell and John York, the 49ers’ owner and chair of the NFL Owners Committee on Health and Safety, would strongly advocate.

Risking a blow to the head when still dealing with a concussion is dangerous and reckless, increasing the chance of an even more severe concussion or worse.

But you have to wonder whether Smith’s situation reinforces the notion held by some players -- Brian Urlacher springs to mind -- that it’s not in their interest to be so forthright about post-concussion symptoms. After all, if Smith had kept quiet and played against Chicago, win or lose, the 49ers would not be entertaining the thought of Colin Kaepernick starting Sunday against the New Orleans Saints.

Urlacher, the Bears linebacker, has said he’d lie to doctors to get back on the field following a concussion. Some players have been known to tank the baseline cognitive tests they take in the offseason so they can easily match their scores if they have to retake them following a concussion.

Smith did just what the NFL wants, and he may lose his starting job because of it. He might end up as the poster boy for the Urlacher-ian way of thinking, the Wally Pipp of concussions. Pipp lost his starting role to Lou Gehrig at the beginning of Gehrig’s streak of 2,130 straight games.

The turn of events in the last week doesn’t necessarily mean that Smith will be benched for the rest of the season. Jim Harbaugh’s "Hot Hand Theory" likely will give Kaepernick the chance to start in New Orleans. But another tenet of the theory is that if Kaepernick cools off, Harbaugh always can return to Smith.

But what happens to Smith in the long run if Kaepernick starts and continues to play well? Kaepernick not only was a high draft choice by the current regime, he was hand-picked by Harbaugh last year.

He also comes cheap.

The Turlock product is due to make $850,000 next season. Smith’s salary: $8.5 million.

What’s more, $7.5 million of that is due on April 1. Cut Smith before then, and the 49ers save that chunk of money.

If Harbaugh and 49ers had their way, they would keep both. After all, $9.9 million (including No. 3 option Scott Tolzien) is not a lot to pay for a quarterback stable in the NFL.

But will Smith want to stick around if Kaepernick takes his job? He already has suffered the embarrassment of the Peyton Manning affair and of signing a modest contract just months after he guided his team to within overtime of the Super Bowl.

If he loses his job, it will be with a 6-2 record this season, a career-high 70.0 percent completion percentage and a 104.1 passer rating that ranks third in the league between Manning and Tom Brady.

Smith is a very modest guy, and he never would lament any lost earnings. He also has lofty, undisclosed aspirations once his football career ends, and he likely will feel he made the right decision about his health even if it ends up costing him his job.

But the league’s concussion policy is meant to protect players. You have to wonder if all of them are looking at it from that perspective.

Sign up for e-mail news updates.