Demoted 49ers QB Alex Smith is in a precarious situation with his longtime team. Still under contract and due $8.5 million in 2013, the Niners' vague statements in the media about Smith's status will only increase his trade value for teams desperately searching for a franchise signal-caller.
What San Francisco can't afford to do is cut him. While it would save the team some cap room, there is a strong possibility that he could be swooped up by the Niners' NFC West rival Arizona Cardinals.
These assertions have substance thanks to ESPN's John Clayton, who shared his beliefs about what the Niners' current strategy for Smith means (h/t ArizonaSports.com):
Oh, they're bluffing in that way because they're trying to get trade value and in some ways, they need to get trade value because I would have to think that if he's released, he'll make a beeline to Arizona and compete against the 49ers two times a year for the next several years.
Smith essentially lost his starting job to Colin Kaepernick in the middle of the regular season due to a concussion. Once Kaepernick displayed how special of a player he is, turning back to Smith wasn't an option for head coach Jim Harbaugh.
Speculation is stirring because of comments CEO Jed York made prior to the Niners' Super Bowl XLVII loss to the Baltimore Ravens. According to CSNBayArea.com, York indicated Smith could be retained based on the team's cap situation:
You figure out what's best for guys, what's best for the team... And you figure out, is there a spot on the team for him from a cap standpoint? Yeah, absolutely, there's a spot for him on the team.
While it is unlikely that Smith remains on the team, York also points out that having two stellar quarterbacks on the roster is a good problem to have. Prior to that, Pro Football talk reported that Smith would seek his release ahead of free agency, which starts on March 9.
But Harbaugh came out this week and took a firm stance against the notion of Smith being cut, questioning the leverage that Smith would have in that request:
There is no doubt that Harbaugh revived Smith's career and is a primary reason why Smith is going to be in such high demand in the first place.
This scenario is definitely unique, as Harbaugh alluded to, yet he refused to get into specifics. The more mystery the Niners can generate around what they will do with Smith, the better for the franchise and potential trade compensation.
For a player who has dealt with so much adversity and hardship during his career, this is not an ideal situation for Smith. It's obvious that he is capable of playing at a high level in the NFL and could easily start somewhere else immediately.
As with so many situations, particularly in the modern era, the bottom line is that this league is a business. Smith's loyalty to the Niners' franchise has been admirable and granting him his release would be a classy gesture.
Sometimes, the perceptibly moral thing to do is a conflict of interest with what is best for the team. That is the case for Smith here, and the quintessential purgatory he finds himself in is due to the contract extension he signed last offseason.
That unwavering commitment to the Niners has ironically cost Smith in his current set of circumstances.
As Harbaugh and the front office continue to be fickle about their intentions for Smith, teams will continue lining up Godfather trade offers to pull the lame duck off the San Francisco sidelines and get him calling signals for an NFL franchise.
As Smith has proven, that's where he belongs. It just won't be with the franchise he has invested so much in, and the one that currently has a lot of money invested in him.