NEW ORLEANS -- On the heels of the news that quarterback Alex Smith won't be back with the San Francisco 49ers next season, coach Jim Harbaugh acknowledged that Colin Kaepernick's backup deserves to be a starter in the NFL.
"We won't get into talking about the speculation or the what-ifs (of Smith's future)," Harbaugh said during Wednesday's Super Bowl media session. "I'm sure that will play out, but he is a starting quarterback. He's got a desire to be a starting quarterback, and I'm sure that will play out."
NFL.com's Ian Rapoport reported Tuesday that the 49ers believe Smith has earned a chance to pick a new team and be treated with respect, whether that comes through a trade or his release. Harbaugh was asked if Smith's feelings are a factor in how this plays out.
"Absolutely, and I'm sure many things will factor into that decision," Harbaugh said.
Smith acknowledged Wednesday that he's heard the whispers, but hasn't officially spoken with the 49ers about his future.
"I'm sure when we get back, there will be plenty of time to sit down with Jim and (general manager) Trent (Baalke) and see what's what," said Smith, who downplayed the idea that he's demanding a starting job somewhere else.
"This is a business," Smith said. "I don't really look at it like that. They're going to do what's best, that's their job. They're going to do what's best for the team. I don't know what that is -- obviously a better question for them. ... Like I said, I want to play football, but I'm under contract for two years, so (returning to the team is) certainly a possibility."
The tea leaves suggest Smith will, indeed, get his chance to start again, but not in San Francisco. Smith has handled this situation with class, just as he's maneuvered every other bump in the road this season, and an amicable split appears imminent.
Follow Marc Sessler on Twitter @MarcSesslerNFL.