Alex Smith could have sulked. He could have pouted. He could have whined.
Smith could have taken any avenue after San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh benched him last season. Smith lost his job because of a concussion. He had been playing well. The 49ers had been winning.
But in an instant, Smith lost it all.
It's a feeling Josh Freeman can now relate to.
Freeman lost his starting job this week not because of a concussion, but because of his coach's choice. Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano opted to move on to rookie Mike Glennon, the Buccaneers' third-round draft pick, because Freeman had not been playing well and the Bucs lost their first three contests.
Nevertheless, Freeman is understandably upset. He wants to start. He wants to play.
That is unlikely to happen again in Tampa Bay, so Freeman needs to think about the future. He needs to look beyond the moment. He needs to shelve his feelings and look at the bigger picture. Another team might want him, but only if he grows up and handles this situation like a professional and like a man.
If Freeman indeed wants another crack at starting in the National Football League – he told ESPN's Josina Anderson that he wants the Bucs to trade him -- he would be wise to follow Smith's lead. Smith did not sulk. He did not pout. He did not whine. He was the consummate professional. Smith supported his replacement, Colin Kaepernick. He did not try to undercut Harbaugh. He did not run away from the media.
Smith handled his demotion with grace and class, all the way through the Super Bowl in New Orleans, where he stood at media day and answered question after question after question about losing his starting job. It was evident that Smith burned to play in the biggest game of the year. No one could blame him. But he was remarkably poised and positive, and he put the team before himself.
That poise and positivity are reasons Smith has a starting job today. Kansas City coach Andy Reid understood how radioactive Smith could have become in San Francisco. He got it.
In 2010, Reid similarly switched quarterbacks. Kevin Kolb spent the offseason and training camp as the Eagles' starter. Michael Vick was the backup. In the first half of the first game of the season, against Green Bay, Kolb suffered a concussion. Vick stepped in and played magnificently against the Packers and the next week against the Detroit Lions.
The Monday after beating the Lions, Reid announced that Kolb was healthy and would start in that week's game against Jacksonville. By Tuesday night, Reid changed his mind. He decided to go with the hot hand. On Wednesday morning, Kolb stood in the Eagles locker room just feet from Vick and spoke at length to a throng of reporters.
Kolb was understandably disappointed. He was angry. He wanted to be the starter. But Kolb repeatedly said that he would do everything he could to support Vick, and he did. He was a terrific teammate. He never once undermined Vick or Reid. He never demanded to be traded. Kolb was a sounding board for Vick during practice, in the locker room and during games. He celebrated Vick's victories and offered guidance in defeat.
Reid appreciated that. After the season, Reid did right by Kolb, trading him to Arizona, which needed a starting quarterback.
One of the many reasons Reid had Chiefs general manager John Dorsey orchestrate the trade for Smith after becoming Kansas City's new coach in January was the professional manner in which Smith handled his adversity. Because of his experience with Kolb, Reid appreciated Smith's approach.
"I'm sure there were a ton of creative questions thrown at him, and he handled them all," Reid told me in March. "He handled them like a man and didn't crack and still trusted his own abilities. When you talk to him, he's still confident. He doesn't have the puppy eyes where he feels like he's been beat up. That's not how he feels."
Freeman looks like he has puppy eyes. He looks like he's been beat up. Twice this week he declined to speak with local reporters in Tampa. The Bucs did not authorize Freeman's interview with ESPN, the Tampa Times reported Friday. Freeman did that on his own, as if he were no longer an employee of the Bucs, which, of course, he still is.
This is a tough business. Bad things happen to good people. It's how you handle adversity that matters most. Freeman should look to Kolb and Smith as examples of how to persevere, how to handle the embarrassment and humiliation of getting benched and turn a negative into a positive. He has talent. It is his image that Freeman needs to fix.
Freeman can start by being a good teammate, by supporting Glennon and fellow back up Dan Orlovsky and by not trying to undercut Schiano or divide the locker room. Be a professional. Be a man.
Freeman's future in the league depends on it.