By Tim Kawakami San Jose Mercury News
If Alex Smith were a bad quarterback or a faultier person, the 49ers already would have let him go without a blink or full explanation.
That is what Jim Harbaugh and Trent Baalke did with running back Brandon Jacobs near the end of last season, remember?
Jacobs got hurt, got passed over, complained on social media, got suspended, and then he was gone, goodbye.
Smith is an entirely different case with immensely more credibility in the 49ers’ locker room, of course.
He still is just 28, has proved he can win as an NFL starting quarterback and has earned the respect of his teammates; and Smith wants to go to a team that will give him a chance to start next season.
Which all puts increasing weight on the 49ers’ pending decision on Smith’s future, due any week now.
Really, beyond the roster strategies, there is one broad conclusion about this one:
If the 49ers force Smith to stay and back up Colin Kaepernick, they will be treading into very awkward territory.
For the first time in the Harbaugh-Baalke era, a personnel decision could upset the locker-room mood and push other players to wonder about their own futures under this regime.
OK, I agree that Smith has value as a QB insurance policy behind Kaepernick and that the 49ers have the right to consider this.
Smith has a contract for next season, and the 49ers certainly could afford his $7.5 million salary because Kaepernick’s figure is so low.
But this is a team that has been built on trust and fidelity to each other; if you do what you’re supposed to do and support your teammates, everyone benefits.
That’s what Harbaugh has preached, that’s what this locker room has responded to and that’s exactly what Smith did even after his injury opened the door for Kaepernick’s ascension.
If Smith had been petulant after he was demoted, there would be no discussion now: He would be an ex-49er ASAP.
But Smith has behaved to the 49ers ideal, after going through so much in his earlier years here. He completed 70 percent of his passing attempts last season, and his 104.1 passer rating would have ranked third-best in the league if he had enough attempts to qualify.
That should not work to his detriment now, and there are important voices in the 49ers locker room that are subtly making that point.
Let’s go back to something Frank Gore — in many ways, the soul of this roster — said during Super Bowl week.
“I respect Alex so much,” Gore said. “He’s been through so much since he’s been in the NFL.
“He comes in early still, studies film like he’s the starter, and I respect him. We came in together, and I’ve seen everything he’s gone through. So whatever happens after this, I wish the best for him.”
Gore also said he knows Smith can be a starter elsewhere, and that’s what Gore wishes for him. Joe Staley, Vernon Davis and Aldon Smith have said similar things.
So, yes, even Alex Smith’s best friends on the team can accept the way he lost the job, because Kaepernick was such an instant revelation.
But the feelings would probably change if the 49ers kept Smith — and his salary —- as insurance when the money could be used to sign Dashon Goldson long term or keep Delanie Walker from leaving as a free agent.
That would raise eyebrows in the 49ers locker room — and around the league.
Naturally, 49ers officials have stressed that all options are possible; other than that, as is their custom, the 49ers are keeping mum on this.
But in the big picture, they have more reason to either release Smith by March 12 (when he is due a $1 million payment) or trade him before April 1 (when his full salary would be guaranteed) than they do to keep him.
If the 49ers can get a second- or third-round pick from Cleveland, Kansas City or Buffalo for Smith (and if Smith is agreeable to the landing spot), that’s the deal to do.
A smart trade also would block Smith from going to division rival Arizona, which I think the 49ers very much want to avoid (and is a reason they don’t want to cut him and let him hit the open market).
The next step: If they let Smith go, the 49ers would need another backup quarterback. But Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman have picked and trained a series of quality quarterbacks in recent years.
Maybe Scott Tolzien is ready to move to the No. 2 slot, or maybe the 49ers can resuscitate someone from the veteran scrap heap, as they did Smith two years ago.
Smith did his part for Harbaugh &Co., and he has graciously stepped aside for Kaepernick.
The 49ers should complete the process by letting Smith move on — it would be applauded in their locker room, it would free up some money, and it also happens to be the right thing.