When I wrote about Alex Smith’s progress just a couple of weeks ago, it’s not like I expected the 49ers’ coaching brass to be watching him as closely as the fans were. In what I believe to be an unprecedented move, the 49ers have replaced the 5th highest rated passer in the football (104.1 rating) while the team is still in first place in the NFC West, with their second year dynamo, Colin Kaepernick.
In week 10, the 49ers were playing the St. Louis Rams. Smith was out of the pocket running and instead of sliding, he turned and was crunched by Rams linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar. He’d stay in the game and complete a touchdown pass to Michael Crabtree before coming out for a possible concussion. That possible concussion became a definite concussion and Smith hasn’t seen the field since, including last Monday night’s victory against the Bears and Sunday’s hard-hitting game against the Saints.
His replacement, Colin Kaepernick, showed that he has first string talent, going 32-48 for 474 yards and three touchdown passes in what were supposed to be two huge tests for the 49ers team. With Kaepernick behind center, they passed them with relative ease. He not only played well in Smith’s absence, he gave the 49ers an offensive weapon at the quarterback position that the team hasn’t seen since the likes of Jeff Garcia and before him, Steve Young. His story is actually the complete opposite of both Young’s and Garcia’s. Both men sat and waited for their opportunities years after they were ready to be a NFL-worthy starting QBs. Kaepernick’s rise comes in only his second year and on a team that went to the NFC Championship game in 2011 with the incumbent Smith.
On October 30th, I noticed a tweet from Kaepernick, giving us a glimpse of his competitiveness.
At this point, fans weren’t expecting to see Kaepernick play outside of the handful of plays Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman design for him. At certain points in games, Smith would come out and in would come Kaepernick, running a quirky play, sometimes going for touchdowns and sometimes going for naught. And while at the time, most fans thought it was just a chance to fool the defense and use Kaep’s fresh legs, now it seems that Harbaugh was getting him some game-time action to prepare him for what was possibly to come.
You can’t predict injuries. You can’t predict concussions. If Alex Smith didn’t get hurt, would we still see Colin Kaepernick as the starting quarterback of the 49ers? It’s a valid question and one that most Smith fans find preposterous. But I think there’s some validity to the idea that Jim Harbaugh has been preparing to make this call and Smith’s injury was the most opportune time to do it. And the call may say more about Smith than it does Kaepernick.
Remember in the offseason that Jim Harbaugh and GM Trent Baalke held a secret meeting with Peyton Manning to see if the future Hall of Famer was worth taking a chance on. Harbaugh has Super Bowl dreams. If he thought Alex Smith was a Super Bowl winning type of quarterback, does he even bother with Manning? In retrospect, that should’ve been the alarm that while Harbaugh always talks Smith up and sticks up for him, deep down, maybe he truly didn’t believe he could win the big one with him. And if he’s truly a non-believer in Smith, it makes some sense to stick with Kaepernick now as the team is 8-2-1 with a two and a half game lead ahead of the second place team in the NFC West, the Seattle Seahawks. If Harbaugh sticks with Kaepernick, he’ll have another shot at the St. Louis Rams and then the Miami Dolphins before getting to a rough last three weeks. The 49ers end their regular season playing New England at Seattle away from home back-to-back and then at home against Arizona.
Smith wasn’t cleared by doctors to play last week against the Chicago Bears and was just cleared on Saturday for yesterday’s game. If Harbaugh wasn’t so sure about Kaepernick, he could’ve made the move back to Smith. In the postgame press conference, Harbaugh said the decision to play Kaepernick was to give Smith a chance to get healthy considering he still had concussion symptoms a week after he was concussed. But now that he’s healthy, Harbaugh has a chance to either go back to his original starter as a showing of faith, or continue with the hot hand, the player who has made the 49ers offense look better than it has in many years.
There are two main differences in Colin Kaepernick and Alex Smith. The first, and obvious one is that Kaepernick has the foot speed and evasiveness to get out of the pocket and make something out of nothing. Smith is infamous for taking sacks, including nine of them on Thanksgiving just a year ago. While no one knows for sure, many of Kaepernick’s drop backs on Sunday may have resulted in sacks if Smith was the quarterback as Kaepernick was making plays on the run for much of the day. The 49ers’ offensive line didn’t have their best day pass or run-blocking.
But the second difference, and most important in my opinion, is that Kaepernick has a stronger and more accurate arm. The ball comes out of his hand with smoke on it and it allows the receivers to get that extra step on the defensive backs. 49ers fans will remember the glory years of receivers taking short and medium passes and turning them into long gains. Part of the reason for that is accuracy on the throws. (Joe Montana just flexed his right bicep and he’s not sure why.) When the ball is right on the money, the receivers don’t have to break stride or slow down. Smith historically hasn’t seen a lot of his shorter throws go for long yards, in part because he’s not super accurate. Mario Manningham and Michael Crabtree have turned short passes into longer gains so far with Kaepernick, though I’ll admit, the sample size is small. But it makes sense that the more accurate quarterback with the stronger arm will be able to make bigger plays.
49ers’ Pro Bowl tight end Vernon Davis who has been with Alex as long as any player on the team, thinks that Kaepernick is a playmaker but isn’t so sure that he’s the starter. Here was his quote about the subject after the game Sunday:
I still think Alex is the man, but it’s the coaches’ call and I am sure Coach Harbaugh will make the right decision.
I run a 49ers’ fans Facebook page and the biggest topic for argument has always been Alex Smith. And now, it’s Alex vs. Colin. It’s the new Team Jacob vs. Team Edward. Half of the fans on the page are calling for Alex to get his job back and half are calling for the new sheriff to take over. But our decision isn’t what matters. Coach Harbaugh is Bella and he has to choose.
I think the offense is more dynamic with Kaepernick dialing up the big plays and while I think Smith is a trooper and deserves as good of fate as possible, the harsh reality is that he’s a B quarterback in the day and age when A quarterbacks win Super Bowls. Can Colin be an A quarterback? That’s a good question that is currently unanswered.
I’d expect to see Kaepernick out there on Sunday in St. Louis. It’s a big bet by Harbaugh. If it fails, he’ll have egg on his face. But if it works out, you can put his face on the 49ers’ Mt. Rushmore of coaches alongside Bill Walsh and George Seifert.
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