By Terez A. Paylor
Alex Smith stepped off the podium following his postgame news conference Sunday with a largely cool, but slightly disappointed look on his face. A 22-17 loss to his former team was certainly not how he envisioned his return to San Francisco going.
So that look stayed on his face as he walked out of the large, bright pressroom and into the bowels underneath Levi's Stadium. That look changed, however, the moment he saw roughly 40 or 50 red-clad fans -- maybe 10 of whom were wearing Colin Kaepernick jerseys -- waiting for him maybe 20 feet ahead.
Thanks for everything, Alex, many of them yelled. They were thanking him for the eight years he spent as the 49ers' starting quarterback, and although the former No. 1 overall pick's tenure by the bay didn't go exactly as anyone planned, Smith stopped for a moment to pose for a picture with a child as they snapped photos.
He did this for about 30 seconds before he walked away with a wave. It was a nice moment, to be sure, but unfortunately for Smith, it might have been the best moment for him after halftime of Sunday's loss.
"He came back to his old team, of course he wanted to win," said tight end Anthony Fasano, who caught four passes for 32 yards as Smith's first-half security blanket. "But it doesn't lie solely on his shoulders at all. We could have taken advantage, as a team, of some opportunities to get a win today, and we didn't."
The first half opened so wonderfully, though. On the Chiefs' first drive, Smith led his team on a precise 12-play, 81-yard drive that was capped with a 2-yard touchdown throw to tight end Travis Kelce. He went 6-for-8 for 61 yards on the drive, which gave the Chiefs a 7-0 first-quarter lead.
By halftime, the Chiefs trailed 13-10, but Smith had been excellent, completing 12 of 19 passes for 117 yards and a touchdown.
But in the second half, the Chiefs became more pass-happy, throwing the ball 13 times compared to just four rushes, and Smith's numbers faltered. He completed just five of 12 second-half passes for 58 yards.
"I felt like we had good balance for most of the game, but there at the end, I think we got ourselves in a couple third-and-shorts and it hurt us," Smith said.
In particular, the Chiefs -- trailing 19-17 -- chose to throw on a third-and-1 at their own 32 with 7 minutes and 20 seconds left. Smith had receiver Dwayne Bowe in the flat, but outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks knocked it down.
"The guy didn't rush, and he ends up batting it down," Smith said. "It's going to be a bang-bang play even if you throw it firm, and if I clutch it or lob it over his head it's probably going to be incomplete, or even worse. I was trying to get it to him as fast as I could, but the D-end didn't rush."
Smith, however, would get another chance. After the 49ers increased their lead to 22-17 with a Phil Dawson field goal, Smith got the ball back with 2 minutes and 12 seconds left and a chance to be the hero -- just the way you'd draw it up in a movie.
After Smith's first-down pass to receiver A.J. Jenkins was broken up, Chiefs coach Andy Reid called a play that featured three players running vertical routes on the right side of the field. Smith saw Fasano sprint down the numbers, open, and he let it fly -- but the ball got up a little bit, over Fasano's outstretched hands and into the waiting arms of a sliding Perrish Cox.
"I threw it, and I knew it was going to be close," Smith said. "It's one of those throws that they're backing up so deep that the margin of error there is tough. You're trying to get it over the underneath guys and get it back down."
Smith says he felt OK about the throw when he let it go. But he soon wouldn't.
"You hate throwing those at that time," Smith said. "It's a one-score game, and you're trying to push the ball up the field and make something happen."
Smith, who finished the game 17-of-31 for 175 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, was then forced to watch the 49ers and Kaepernick, the man who usurped his starting job in 2012, run out the clock.
As he walked off the field, at least seven his ex-49ers teammates came to greet him, including several respected veterans like running back Frank Gore, guard Alex Boone, defensive end Justin Smith, left tackle Joe Staley, linebacker Patrick Willis and Kaepernick.
"I played a long time with a lot of those guys," Smith said. "It was different competing against them today."
Smith added that the lead-up to the game was different, as well, as he had to answer questions about the way his 49ers tenure came to an end.
However, Reid was pleased with the way his quarterback handled what could have been a potential distraction.
"I thought he handled it like a champ," Reid said. "He did just what I thought he would do. I mean come out, play good football and lead the football team."
Even 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, the man who benched Smith for Kaepernick in 2012, had some positive things to say about Smith's performance.
"I thought he was outstanding," said Harbaugh, who approached Smith after the game. "He was good, cool, in charge. He's playing really good football. Alex Smith can stand (and look at himself) in front of a mirror."
But while the words of his ex-coach were nice, at the end of the day, it's clear Smith would have rather had a win -- as he prepared to turn away from those fans in the hallway after the game, his face switched back to that same, cool, slightly disappointed look.
"It's tough, you're competitive," Smith said. "You want to win the game."