SANTA CLARA — Riding the back of a blowout win over the Patriots, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith will march onto an unfriendly field Sunday to line up against a familar set of 49ers faces.
Sunday night’s nationally-televised matchup against will mark the first time the former San Francisco quarterback has played his former team in the regular season, prompting nostalgia from both fans and players alike.
With the Chiefs and 49ers both sitting at a 2-2 record in their divisions, Sunday’s game is sure to be an intense matchup between two franchises fighting to stay above .500.
However, that didn’t mean former coaches and teammates of the seven-year San Francisco veteran didn’t leave room for sentimentality.
Speaking to members of the media Wednesday, Coach Jim Harbaugh — who made the call to bench Smith in favor of the younger and greener Colin Kaepernick — reflected fondly about Smith’s San Francisco tenure:
“I know Alex did the very best he could when he played here and he did great. We felt the exact same way. And when you do your best, you look back and you feel good about what you accomplished.”
Kaepernick made his first NFL start in 2012 after a concussion sidelined Smith. Kaepernick went on to trounce the Bears, completing 16-0f-23 passes for 246 yards and a 133.1 passer rating by game’s end.
Smith was available for the next game, but Kaepernick’s play spurred Harbaugh to go with a “hot hand” approach, which ultimately left the veteran Smith sidelined for the rest of the season.
Many 49ers players were asked about Smith’s return on Wednesday, but perhaps none offered more sincere words than the man whose play ultimately led to Smith’s departure, Kaepernick himself:
“One of the classiest people I’ve ever been around, just an all-around great guy. I don’t think anyone could have handled it any better than he did … The way he handled things didn’t turn it into a controversy in the locker room, and that just shows the character that he has not just as a player, but as a man.”
Smith’s career in San Francisco was rocky, earning from many the derogatory “draft bust” title. Kaepernick credited Smith with teaching him the important skills like reading and manipulating defenses, and making reads on routes.
The handling of the situation could have easily left a bad taste in Smith’s mouth, but instead, he insists there are no hard feelings regarding his departure from San Francisco:
“I think because of everything that’s happened over the course of my career I was so much more appreciative of how fragile the opportunity is to start and get the start and play in this game. For me I was just full-go on it, gonna do everything I could to just take advantage of it and not look back.”
Sunday’s matchup provides fans on both sides of the debate a first-hand comparison between the two quarterbacks. Since last year, the numbers have favored Smith as a passer.
Since starting for the Chiefs at the beginning of 2013, Smith has completed 392 passes for 4,204 yards and a 63.1 completion percentage.
In the same span, Kaepernick has completed 326 passes for 4,109 yards and a 62.7 percentage completion.
Kaepernick’s value is bolstered by his ability to make plays with his legs, leading Smith with 711 rushing yards to Smith’s 534 yards in 2013.
Sunday’s game will be devoid of grudge match qualities. And while Harbaugh was undeterred in his praise for Smith, he offered a tongue-in-cheek assessment of his outlook for Sunday:
“Not rooting for success for him this week, but always very happy for his success, almost all the time, for Alex Smith’s success. This week not included.”