San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith has thrown himself into being a mentor for Colin Kaepernick after Smith lost the starting job to the second-year player. (Photo: Kirby Lee, USA TODAY Sports)
(USA TODAY) - Alex Smith could have been a divisive guy, tearing apart the San Francisco 49ers locker room with a quarterback controversy in what would have been the franchise's sequel to the Joe Montana-Steve Young cold war.
Instead, Smith has proved to be a key reason why quarterback Colin Kaepernick is 7-2 as a starter in leading the 49ers to the Super Bowl for the first time in 18 years.
Smith was completing 70.2% of his passes with 13 touchdowns and five interceptions, ranking fourth in the NFL with a 104.1 passer rating when he suffered a concussion Nov. 11 that opened the door for more dynamic Kaepernick.
But instead of sulking, Smith devoted himself to being a mentor and coach.
"Another guy with Alex's experience may have not been as willing to help," 49ers fullback Bruce Miller said. "Colin being young, Alex being the veteran, he helped him game-plan and helped in meetings."
49ers coach Jim Harbaugh paid Smith a huge compliment Monday.
"Alex has really helped coach Colin in meetings every single day," Harbaugh said. "He coaches Colin now more than I do.
"That speaks volumes to how good a teammate Alex Smith is."
Maybe Harbaugh, a 15-year former NFL quarterback, had Smith in mind when he said Sunday, "It's the best focus on unity and winning I've ever been a part of."
And while watching Kaepernick excel, Smith has kept himself ready, just in case.
"I respect Alex so much," 49ers running back Frank Gore said. "He's been a pro. He still prepares and studies like he's the starter.
"When Kaep comes to the sidelines, he tells him what he sees. Whatever happens, I just wish the best for Alex."
Gore says Smith deserves to be rewarded after this season for his unselfishness. Smith is due a hefty $8.5 million salary in 2013 and likely will be a coveted free agent if the 49ers release him, as expected.
"I know Alex, and he can play," Gore said. "I know he wants to be the man. If he can't be the man here, I want him to go somewhere else where he can be successful."
But for now, the focus remains on making the 49ers successful.
"That (situation) could have went sideways in a hurry," 49ers guard Alex Boone said. "I applaud Alex every day for making Colin better and teaching him and still practicing as hard as he does. That's a tough situation. I love Alex to death for the way he handled it.
"Alex wouldn't ever want to fracture and separate this team," Boone added. "He saw where we were going. To divide this team would have been a horrible thing."
Jim Corbett, USA TODAY Sports