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Will the Alex Smith injury have long-term consequences for NFL?

By Josh Katzowitz | NFL Writer

NEW ORLEANS -- For most of the hour-long session at Tuesday's Media Day, 49ers backup quarterback Alex Smith was the most popular player not sitting on one of the prestigious podiums.

Defensive tackle Justin Smith had a podium. So did cornerback Carlos Rogers and safety Dashon Goldson. Reporters and superheroes and clowns stopped by to ask a question or two and stay for a few minutes, but those 49ers players weren't mobbed by media, either.

Alex Smith was. Mostly because Smith is a good talker and because Smith has a compelling story and because, in my mind, Smith might be the biggest step-back in concussion safety in a long time.

It's not his fault that he lost his job after suffering a concussion in Week 10 against the Rams. It's not Colin Kaepernick's fault that he played so well and forced the coaching staff to change quarterbacks midseason. And it's not Jim Harbaugh's fault that he thought bringing in the versatile Kaepernick would help his team make a deep playoff run (for the record, he was right).

But that doesn't mean Smith losing his job (and possibly his career in San Francisco) isn't bad news for the NFL. Because it might be.

Think about it: Players see that Smith suffers a concussion and misses the next game because doctors won't clear him to play. His backup puts out two good performances. Smith -- who led his team to last year's NFC title game -- loses his job because of injury and not because of the quality of his play.

Is that fair? No. Does it matter? No.

The big question, though, is this: Will another player look at Smith and think to himself, “You know what, I might have a concussion, but I'm not going to tell anybody because I don't want to lose my job as well?”

I asked Smith about that, just like others probably did during the 49ers Media Day session. He was perfectly thoughtful and reasonable, and he didn't think my premise was correct.

“I don't think so. I don't think it's any different than any guys that deal with ankle injuries, knee injuries,” Smith said. “It's no different than testing an ankle. If I feel good and I can run on it and I can do my job, I'll go out and play. I don't feel it's any different with a concussion. If a doctor says you're OK and you're feeling good and focused and you're symptom-free, you're going to go play.”

OK, but isn't it easier to hide a concussion than, say, a sprained knee or broken ankle? After all, Smith played at least a half-dozen more plays after suffering the concussion against the Rams.

“You'd be surprised,” Smith said. “A lot of guys can tape up a bad ankle, limp around on it a little and go play. It happens all the time.”

The past few days, I asked about a half-dozen players the same kind of questions I posed to Smith. Most said Smith's injury wouldn't affect the big picture regarding NFL safety.

“I don't know about that situation particularly, but the culture has changed for the better in the past few years as far as concussions are concerned,” Ravens center Matt Birk said. “The attitude is that it's not smart to play with a concussion -- you're not doing yourself or your team any favors by trying to play through a concussion just because you can.”

But Ravens guard Marshal Yanda also understands the consequences of Smith losing his job.

“That's definitely tough, especially for younger players,” Yanda said. “Guys that are trying to get a job, earn a job and keep a job. But nobody's job is safe. You have to win your job every day of the year in this business. But that is a tough deal. You paint the picture that if you say you're hurt, you could lose your job. That's the harsh reality of this business.

“I'm a starter and playing really well, but that doesn't secure me for anything. I'm on a job interview every Sunday. If I give up two sacks and two hits on the quarterback and have penalties in the first half, everything I've built up could be gone. You have to win every day.”

Otherwise, your backup might beat you for it. Smith knew that was a possibility when he was out with his concussion. He knew Kaepernick had potential. But there wasn't much Smith could do about it, and he had to sit on the sideline and watch as Kaepernick took over the team Smith had led successfully the past two seasons.

It hurts, but that's life.

The question moving forward is this: Will the next quarterback in a similar situation not let on that he's suffered a brain injury? Because it very well could happen.

Said NFL Network analyst Steve Mariucci: “That's our concern.”

For more NFL news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnNFL on Twitter, and subscribe to our Pick-6 Podcast and NFL newsletter. You can follow Josh Katzowitz on Twitter here: @joshkatzowitz.

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