NEW ORLEANS –
Perhaps no one understands the confluence of emotions Alex Smith has this week as well as Phil Simms.
Smith lost his job as the San Francisco 49ers’ starting quarterback this season after missing a game with a concussion. Second-year pro Colin Kaepernick started for him and completed 16 of 23 passes, including two for touchdowns, in a 32-7 rout of the Chicago Bears. Coach Jim Harbaugh decided to stay with Kaepernick despite Smith’s 6-2-1 record this season and 19-5-1 mark under Harbaugh; his 104.1 passer rating, which was third in the NFL and is higher than Kaepernick’s regular-season mark of 98.3; and Smith’s league-leading 70.2 completion percentage.
On Sunday, Smith, who led the 49ers to the 2011 NFC Championship Game (where they lost to the Giants), will tote those gaudy numbers to the sideline, where he will stand and watch Kaepernick start Super Bowl XLVII against the Baltimore Ravens.
“It’s a tough situation,” said Simms, who will work his seventh Super Bowl as an analyst on CBS’ broadcast of the game. “He has no choice. You have to take it like a man. He knows he’s going to be somewhere else next year with a chance to play and that’s what you have to look forward to.”
Simms was in a similar situation in 1990, four years after he completed 22 of 25 passes and was named Most Valuable Player in the Giants’ 39-20 rout of Denver in Super Bowl XXI. The team’s starter for most of the previous decade, he led the Giants to an 11-2 record before breaking his foot on Dec. 15 in a loss to Buffalo. The injury ended his season. Jeff Hostetler took over and started in five consecutive season-ending victories, including a 20-19 triumph over the Bills in Super Bowl XXV.
Like Simms in a previous generation, Smith helped put his team in position to win a championship with outstanding play but must watch someone else cross the finish line.
“I would say there’s a big difference – he’s able to play,” Simms said. “I think it would be much tougher what he’s going through than what I did. The fact that I was hurt, I realized there was nothing I could do. I don’t know if that softens the blow or not. I think it probably does. I saw Alex Smith being interviewed this morning. I did feel for him. I will talk about him during the game, hopefully. He’s handled it great. I don’t know this for a fact, but I think if he doesn’t get hurt he wouldn’t have been unseated as the quarterback. I kind of thought maybe he would have been – I always had that vibe – but I think maybe my vibe was wrong, from what I understand.”
Smith has responded to his disappointment with extraordinary grace. He has not criticized Kaepernick, lashed out at Harbaugh or bemoaned his fate. Every coach and player asked here about Smith has said what an exemplary teammate he’s been. Kaepernick has repeated seemingly a thousand times how much Smith has helped him.
“I’m not going to lie, (it’s been) tough at times, for sure, tough to accept, tough to watch, but we’re in the Super Bowl, and this has been an amazing experience,” Smith said. “It’s a great team, I love being a part of it. I have said it before, it’s bittersweet a little bit, but still, it’s been a great thing to be a part of.”
Smith admits he is frustrated about losing his job.
“It’s only human nature that things like that do happen, but for me it’s just trying to shut all that down,” he said. “That’s not doing any good for anybody, certainly not me. For me, it’s focusing on my job, staying ready, and being the best teammate I can. Those are the priorities for me; those are what I try to focus on.”
Simms was much more of an outsider after he got hurt. He couldn’t practice. Then head coach Bill Parcells mostly ignored injured players, even star quarterbacks, and he and his staff devoted their energy to preparing Hostetler.
“Phil got hurt and he wasn’t around,” Hostetler said. “He wasn’t on the sideline with me. Matt Cavanaugh was my eyes and ears on the sideline.
“I know it was tough on Phil. He played great and all the sudden he gets hurt and he can’t play in a huge game like that.”
That Super Bowl was played in Tampa and by the time it ended, Simms had left the stadium.
“It’s not easy,” he said. “I was on the sideline just for a little bit. I was still on crutches. I was there for the start of the first quarter. I went into the locker room, because I couldn’t stand there anymore. I watched it on TV in the stadium. I didn’t really get emotionally involved. I just watched it and you try to deal with as best you can.
“I didn’t want to stand on the sideline with crutches and get run over and sitting on the bench, I couldn’t see what was happening. I can’t remember exactly when I left. I went into the locker room for a while. Maybe right around the start of the fourth quarter I went to the hotel and finished watching the game. A cop actually took me to the hotel because I wanted to watch it there.”
Simms sought no sympathy then and more than two decades later, he has no interest in hearing sad songs about his lost opportunity.
“That’s sports – you just deal with it,” Simms said. “How did I feel after losing some playoff games? Bad. You just go home and tough it out. Those situations are no different. You just tough it out. You don’t have a choice.”
Smith has to watch his team move forward without him in a primary role, just as Simms did four years after his epic Super Bowl performance.
“That was like another life ago by that time,” Simms said. “It is what it is. The 49ers team was Alex’s team, too. I do feel for him. He’s dealing with it great.
“The other thing is, you never know. First quarter (he could hear), ‘Alex, you have to go in.’ That, to me, would be the hard part for him, is that he mentally and physically had to say sharp and ready to play.”