With each Colin Kaepernick start for the San Francisco 49ers, NFL players are fundamentally less safe than they were the game before.
No, I'm not somehow implying that Kaepernick or the Niners are endangering their opponents or should do anything different than start the quarterback they feel gives them the best chance to win. What this situation highlights, however, is the tenuous hold that any NFL player has on his job, his roster spot and his livelihood.
Take a brief look at Alex Smith's career.
Drafted first out of Utah, he was (in some respects) Tim Tebow before many people knew who Tim Tebow was. Smith was an option quarterback in college, but he was an option quarterback with an NFL-caliber arm to go along with his phenomenal athleticism. He wasn't as polished as the Jeff Tedford-trained Aaron Rodgers, but he went No. 1 overall because the 49ers (save Dave Razzano) thought he had the higher upside.
Then the 49ers went through what can only be described as a ridiculous and systematic period of upheaval. As each head coach tried to save his job, Smith had to deal with near-continual change at offensive coordinator and has been forced to learn and run more diverse schemes than just about any quarterback in the league. On top of that, he had some of the worst receiver help a young quarterback could've asked for.
Everything changed when Jim Harbaugh came to town. 2011 was Smith's best season as a pro, and 2012 was on track to be just as good if not better. Michael Crabtree finally looked like he belonged on an NFL field, and the Niners (save some hiccups) were playing some of the best football in the entire NFL.
But, as teams and fanbases are wont to do, Smith was blamed for those hiccups, and when he was forced to sit with a concussion, Kaepernick entered and was viewed as the "hot hand" (by Harbaugh) and as a season savior by many of the fans.
There is little more depressing than watching Smith stand on the sideline with his helmet on for an entire game, looking like he expects to go in any moment as Kaepernick leads the team to victory.
This week, Harbaugh has eliminated much of the drama, as he's already indicated that Kaepernick will get the start in St. Louis to beat the team that concussed Smith in the first place.
Remember that when Smith left that game against the Rams, he was 7-of-8 for 72 yards and a TD. Kaepernick had the rest of the game (and an OT) and wasn't able to beat St. Louis.
So, we ask ourselves this question: Would Alex Smith be playing if it weren't for that concussion? It's a question that Smith likely asks himself every day as he leaves practice getting only second-team snaps. It's a question Smith probably asked himself as he watched Kaepernick play against the Saints little better than Smith probably would've.
Kaepernick was the hot hand, but he only got that chance because he was the healthy hand.
Concussions are the silent killer of the NFL. Year after year, former players realize that their lives will never be the same as they lose mobility, vision, memories and the general ability to take care of themselves. Their injuries, years old, catch up to them when they should be enjoying the greatest moments of their lives—graduations, weddings, time with wives and children with their job no longer in the way.
The wives, too, become caretakers when they should be retiring. Health-care costs force them to work two jobs—a regular job to support their families and another full-time job taking care of their spouse. They watch as their husband—once one of the greatest athletes on the planet—struggles to wipe his own behind or feed himself with a spoon. They sell trophies, rings, memories in order to pay one of many medical bills, and they fight to make sure no one ever finds out about the man their husband has become.
Entire generations of NFL greats are disappearing because the game got too violent too fast; faster than the players realized and faster than the NFL was ready, willing or able to do anything about it.
Today's generation still holds the stigma that "playing through pain" is somehow more manly, more virtuous than being healthy. Fans goad and taunt players to "take the skirts off" and blame the NFL for feminizing the game. No one seems to realize (or care) that a brain swelling and forever being damaged is a little more serious than turf toe.
As the NFL takes action and has tried (little-by-little) to make the game safer, one of the biggest obstacles still seems to be truly understanding concussions.
Sideline tests are largely inaccurate and still lead to players playing almost full games with concussions. The NFL standardized those tests a few years ago, but did not make them mandatory and teams still are on their own with little reason to shake off their own preconceived notions of players being "shaken up" or "rattled."
So, ask yourselves as Smith has likely asked himself: If that play happened again, tomorrow, would you take yourself out of the game or would you fake your own health to protect your livelihood?
I'm not asking if it would be right—that's not a value judgement I get to make. I've seen 40-year-old men struggle to put their own eyeglasses on because of concussions they suffered 15 years ago. I've had their wives tearfully tell me how hard their lives are and how they hate football for what it did to the men they love. However, I've also heard those same men tell me they wouldn't change a thing about their lives and how happy they are to watch old tapes to remind them of moments of greatness long since forgotten.
Smith probably won't be a 49er next season. He's due a million-dollar roster bonus in March—the kind of bonus no team wants to pay a backup. He's 28 now and will be 29 next May. He is, quite literally, entering the prime of his NFL quarterbacking career and coming off of two of his best seasons.
Put him wherever you'd like. Make him a Kansas City Chief, a New York Jet or an Oakland Raider. Some team is going to covet him if it doesn't think elite QB help is coming through the draft, and he'll almost certainly be playing elsewhere.
The first time he goes down and sees stars, do you think he tells anyone?
Look around the league at all of the players barely entrenched at the top of the depth chart. On average, NFL players play less than a couple of years, and every year teams get to bring in a dozen (or so) players through the draft and free agency to take their spots. It is an institutionally driven way to bring in new (and cheap) labor.
As concussions and concussion awareness move more and more to the forefront of NFL thought, players won't want to be "the next Alex Smith." Instead of "Wally Pipp'd" (referencing the player who was benched to allow Lou Gerhig to start his first of 2,130 games), players will start using Smith's name as a player who goes down with a concussion and never gets a shot to come back.
Again, this isn't Smith's fault. It isn't Harbaugh's fault. It isn't Kaepernick's fault. It's life. Stuff happens. It is, however, a cautionary tale.
If players refuse to self-report concussions or play through them so that they don't follow in Smith's footsteps, the NFL will be fundamentally less safe. The NFL will not be able to enact any rule that protects players who refuse to protect themselves. No medical expert, no new helmet technology, no fine money or 15-yard penalty will keep players safe who would put themselves into harm's way.
So, players must make this choice for themselves.
The NFL (currently being sued by many of these former players forever-damaged by concussions) and the NFLPA (charged with protecting current players and dedicated to their long-term safety) need to make sure players are making the wisest decisions for themselves and their families.
Alex Smith will get another chance under center for some team at some point. Hopefully, the next time he or any other player goes down with a concussion, they will make the correct choice—a choice that won't trade decades of post-career quality of life for a few extra fleeting moments of greatness.
Michael Schottey is the NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff alongside other great writers at "The Go Route."