NEW ORLEANS -- Alex Smith wove through dozens of reporters in a huge hotel ballroom Wednesday morning, got to his assigned place at a table shared with Scott Tolzien, then bellowed in mock horror:
"No podium? Jeez!"
He was joking, of course, but also kind of not: 100 yards away, Colin Kaepernick held court on the main stage during the 49ers' media session, by himself, the entire focus of all he surveyed.
Kaepernick is the present and the future of the 49ers offense.
Smith's status is murkier, of course -- he's the former starting quarterback and currently a bypassed backup probably getting ready for his final game as a 49er.
Which just so happens to be Super Bowl XLVII against the
And Smith understands the entirety of the weirdness -- he has never been more popular in the 49ers' locker room or among the fan base, but mostly because of the graceful way he has handled his midseason demotion behind Kaepernick.
And only as he and his representatives begin to contemplate life after the 49ers.
So what happens to Smith next? Good question.
There are a lot of unknowns in this situation, but here are a few knowns:
1) Smith is taking great pains to avoid causing a stir or losing focus before the Super Bowl, but he absolutely wants to be a starter again and knows that almost certainly would have to come with another team.
"I want to play football," Smith said Wednesday. "I'm not hiding
By every indication, Smith or his representatives will ask the 49ers to release him from the final two years of the contract he signed last summer (when he presumed he would remain the starter), which would free him to negotiate with every team in the league.
2) Smith is still only 28, and there are many NFL teams that could use a QB who completed 70 percent of his passes this season and has gone 19-5-1 as a regular-season starter since the beginning of 2011.
Those teams almost certainly include Cleveland, Kansas City and Arizona.
3) No doubt, Smith at a $7.5 million salary would be a great luxury as Kaepernick's backup for another season; with Kaepernick not eligible for a raise or an extension until after next season, the 49ers could afford to keep both.
But the 49ers could also really use the money elsewhere -- to lock up safety Dashon Goldson long-term, for instance.
And, according to an NFL Network report, the 49ers have decided that they will not block Smith from getting a new start elsewhere.
That jibes with the sense I get: The 49ers will try to trade Smith, and if nothing works out quickly they'll probably release him before the $7.5 million is triggered.
4) The 49ers never tip their hand on this stuff, but when I asked coach Jim Harbaugh if he thought Smith deserved to be a starter next season, he essentially agreed.
"We wouldn't get into talking about the speculation or the what-ifs ... but he is a starting quarterback," Harbaugh said Wednesday after his news conference.
"He's got a desire to be a starting quarterback, and I'm sure that'll play out."
5) The 49ers like Tolzien, the current No. 3, though it's still up in the air if they'd be willing to go into next season with Tolzien as their most likely No. 2 QB behind Kaepernick.
Is Tolzien ready for a promotion?
"Next year we'll roll the balls out and see where it goes."
But even if the 49ers are iffy on Tolzien, there are always interesting veteran QBs available every offseason.
6) Smith's teammates want to see him get another chance to start, and they know that means he'll have to leave the franchise.
"I know Alex, and he can play," said tailback Frank Gore, who was drafted by the 49ers alongside Smith in 2005. "And I know he wants to be 'the man.' And for me, I want him to be 'the man.'
"If he can't be 'the man' here, I want him to go somewhere else and have a successful career."
7) The most likely Smith Scenario is a melding of the trade and release options -- trade him to a team he wants to go to, if that's workable.
The 49ers get a better draft pick for him if the trading team knows Smith wants to stay there for the long-term -- maybe the difference between a second- and a fifth-round pick, which is large.
These kinds of deals aren't easy, but an arranged trade would be the proper way to honor both the 49ers' rights, Smith's service to the team and all the times he stayed with the team when he could have left.
And if the 49ers and Smith can't agree on a trade scenario, then they should release him, because it's the right thing to do ... after Smith has done all the right things himself.
I think the 49ers are prepared to do this. And, after the twin demotions -- from starter to backup, from podium to table -- I'm sure Smith is prepared for it, too.