The tip of the iceberg was on Media Day, when Smith was swarmed by a sea of reporters and looked like he just wanted to be anywhere else (via Darren Smith of 1090 AM in San Diego).
Wanna get away? twitter.com/DSmithShow/sta…— Darren Smith (@DSmithShow) January 29, 2013
We all know that Smith, in an honest moment, would tell you that this has been a miserable time for him. He was the starting quarterback for a first-place team, suffered a freak injury that was supposed to keep him out a week and never saw the field again.
But airing that frustration through the media would not have benefited anyone. Smith would have looked like a spoiled, entitled athlete and would have trouble finding a job if/when he is traded or released. And the 49ers would have had a rift in the locker room that could have torn them apart and prevented them from getting where they are right now.
As Ben Shpigel of the New York Times wrote, Smith has become a master of getting out of the awkward, uncomfortable situation:
Defusing awkward and uncomfortable situations is a Smith specialty. Eight tumultuous seasons as the 49ers’ on-again, off-again, on-again, off-again, on-again, off-again franchise quarterback steeled him. However stung, he never pouted or griped. He tutored Kaepernick. He encouraged him. He endured.
That last part, about helping Kaepernick and enduring, is what makes Smith an asset that the 49ers are lucky to have right now.
This situation is similar to the one the New England Patriots went through 12 years ago with Drew Bledsoe and Tom Brady, though there is one big difference: The Patriots were not a Super Bowl contender with Bledsoe, whereas the 49ers made it to the NFC Championship with Smith.
Bledsoe was the face of the Patriots' franchise for years. But when he suffered an injury that kept him out longer than Smith was out, Brady took over and the rest is history with that team.
Leading up to this Super Bowl, Bledsoe did an interview with CBS DC and talked about the emotion that Smith is undoubtedly feeling in this spot:
There’s a little soul-searching that goes on. But ultimately, you do the right thing. You’ve got a choice. You can do the right thing or you can go the other way with it, and that’s what Alex has done. He’s elected to step up and do the right thing for his team.
What is your opinion of Alex Smith right now?
We all look and see the talent that Kaepernick has. His arm strength, accuracy, poise in and out of the pocket, speed and ability to accelerate make him one of the most dangerous weapons in the NFL.
But we don't know where Kaepernick would be right now without Smith. Players always have to go out and execute, but when there is a veteran who can guide a second-year quarterback along and help recognize coverage, defensive packages, etc., the learning curve accelerates.
Smith's role on this team, even though it doesn't show up on the field, is a key reason the 49ers have made it to the Super Bowl. It is the reason they were able to endure after he was taken out of the starting quarterback role.
We often overrate what character and chemistry in the locker room means in sports. In the case of Smith and the 49ers, though, it is a testament to the kind of people they are that the whole thing didn't fall apart after Jim Harbaugh made the switch in Week 11.