Alex Smith will exit the Bay Area in a way few could have expected two years ago.

Appreciated. Honored. Perhaps even beloved.

Two years ago, that wouldn’t have been the case. Back then, as 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh was beginning his reign, Smith was an unwelcome necessity. The starting quarterback because there were no other options. A hold-your-nose-and-deal-with-it choice.

Now Smith will leave – in a trade being reported as a done deal with the Kansas City Chiefs that under league rules can be consummated on March 12 – as a quarterback who has proved that he can not only win games, but also win over the fans. And change his reputation in the process.

His 19-31 record as a starting quarterback in the first five years of his career has become an asterisk. His past two seasons, both on and off the field, are what will be remembered. Not just his 20-6-1 record as a starter (particularly the “and -1,” the Week 9 tie with St. Louis where he suffered a concussion that led to the end of his playing career as a 49er), but the bar he set for professional behavior. Not just for the 49ers organization or for Bay Area sports, but for professional athletes in general.

The evidence was there before the Super Bowl in New Orleans. Wave after wave of reporters surged around Smith, waiting for a glimpse of bitterness or self-absorption. They came away empty, wondering if Smith was for real. He was. While some of the 49ers embarrassed themselves on the big stage, Smith showed what it means to be a loyal teammate and a professional.

A win-win trade
So it’s fitting that the 49ers have cut a deal that works for both parties. Smith will head to the Chiefs, a team with the potential to rebound and one with a long tradition and hungry and devoted fans. He joins former Philadelphia Eagles head coach Andy Reid, who knows offense and quarterbacking and who has skin as thick as Smith’s. They both earned (to borrow a Harbaugh phrase) their armadillo skins the hard way. They will likely forge a practical and honest relationship: Smith will know better than to believe effusive praise; Reid will know better than to hand it out.

Kansas City is a vastly preferable landing spot to Jacksonville or Cleveland, or even Arizona, where there’s more offensive talent but where new head coach Bruce Arians will be learning on the job.