NEW ORLEANS -- It is, to be sure, a risk, switching out quarterbacks in mid-season, as Jim Harbaugh has.
This one isn't hard to explain. Smith deserves a ton of credit for resurrecting his career in 2011, and was mostly outstanding this fall. That said, this is the same guy who lost a training camp battle to J.T. O'Sullivan in 2008 and another to Shaun Hill in 2009, and was benched in 2010. And the same guy who, truth be told, did enough to get the Niners to the NFC title game last year, but not enough to deter management from making a run at Peyton Manning (yes, that happened).
The bottom line: Just about every quarterback Harbaugh has worked with as a head coach has flourished.
Todd Mortensen's football career was in shambles at BYU before he transferred to San Diego in 2004; he went on to win Co-Offensive Player of the Year honors in the Pioneer League after his, and Harbaugh's, first year there. Mortensen's successor, Josh Johnson, threw 34 touchdown passes and went 11-1 for Harbaugh in 2006. At Stanford, Andrew Luck became the brightest quarterback prospect in a generation.
Smith came next. And it'd be a fool's bet to think that Harbaugh won't find a way to make it work for Colin Kaepernick, like he has for so many others.
Kaepernick's a fantastic athlete, something that was on clear display in a 31-21 win over the New Orleans Saints in the Superdome on Sunday and in another victory over the Chicago Bears at Candlestick six days earlier. He's also in a fantastic situation, with a coach who understands the position like few others do.
One rival executive who has been around Harbaugh texted on Sunday night to say that the Niners leader has a "very special instinct" for creating the right environment for a player at the position and "a real good feel for what each quarterback can do, and (an ability to) game plan around that."
No teammate of Smith's or Kaepernick's is going to say it. But opponents see it. While the quarterback in Harbaugh's system has to be smart and understand everything around him, he is put in an optimal position to succeed, no matter what his skill set is.
"Harbaugh does a great job of protecting his quarterback with scheme," Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins told me. "They run the ball well, which takes the pressure off the passing game. And then they dress up the passes to look like runs, so he has simple reads and he doesn't have to go from one side of the field to the other."
Jenkins continued to say that it's done through "different formations and runs. They're usually in 22 personnel, with one receiver. So those things are staying the same. The good thing about that for their quarterbacks, especially for Kaepernick, is that slows the defense down. We have to prepare for all that stuff. We're thinking, 'Run, run, run,' and then the passes they do set up are level passes, move the pocket, easy reads; it takes all the pressure off the quarterback."
That allows the quarterback to play. And boy, did Kaepernick play on Sunday.
His numbers weren't eye-popping. He completed 16 of his 25 passes for 231 yards, a touchdown and a pick, and ran for 27 yards and an additional score on six carries. The defense accounted for 14 of the Niners' 31 points.
But Kaepernick passed the eye test with flying colors. On the second play of the team's first touchdown drive, he connected with Mario Manningham in the flat on a well-designed 40-yard catch-and-run. On the next play, he hit Manningham for 13 yards against the right sideline on a throw that looked like it was shot out of a Juggs machine. He then closed the drive with a seven-yard touchdown run, seemingly gliding past his pursuers as he split the defense.
He had more moments like that, too (a 45-yard connection with Delanie Walker on an 80-yard touchdown drive in the third quarter comes to mind). But few came as any sort of shock to those on the inside.
"I think what makes every guy in our team say, 'Wow,' is that guy can run and throw a 30-yard pass on a line," Walker said. "But I knew that he could step up and do the job well and make plays."
Just the same, the 49ers have faith in Harbaugh, who is now assured of securing a second consecutive finish above .500 for a franchise that went eight straight seasons without one prior to his arrival.
Rosenthal: Hierarchy unchanged
Now, the Niners aren't out of the woods on this one yet. Young quarterbacks have their ups and downs. The risk for a championship-ready team like San Francisco is that Kaepernick could have one of those downs on the wrong day.
But that risk is mitigated by the environment Kaepernick exists in.
That's not to minimize what Kaepernick is doing. It simply punctuates the point that, as important as the quarterback is, he's as dependent on what's around him as any player on the field.
Fact is, circumstances are vital to any quarterback's development.
And there's no question that, right now, Kaepernick's circumstances are good.