The San Francisco 49ers have a little quarterback controversy on their hands. On one side, there's Alex Smith, who led the Niners to the NFC title game last season and has compiled a 19-5-1 record as the starter over the past two regular seasons. On the other side is second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who dismantled the Chicago Bears' vaunted defense on Monday and gives the San Francisco offense an added dimension with his running ability. Who deserves to get the call from coach Jim Harbaugh moving forward?
I don't see this as a controversy. I think Jim Harbaugh will go with Alex Smith, who, just a few weeks ago, was being hailed for playing at an incredibly efficient rate, and was being mentioned as one of the quarterbacks playing playoff-caliber football. In Smith's last full game, against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 8, he completed 18 of 19 passes and posted an off-the-charts passer rating (157.1). The 49ers' next game is a road matchup with the New Orleans Saints, and they'll need to roll with a guy who's played in some big games.
That said, the 49ers should continue to use Kaepernick in the packages they designed for him. Now that he's shown he can run the full offense, San Francisco's opponents will be in a bad spot. Kaepernick won't just be coming in to run option plays anymore; he can be used with any personnel on any part of the field, and has become a nightmare to scheme against. Defensive coordinators have to be sick about this. The Niners' ability to use Kaepernick and Smith in combination -- not as a platoon or in an alternating system -- makes them frightening.
To me, it's Alex Smith, without much hesitation. It's not September anymore. The San Francisco 49ers have six games left, and they're a team that's squarely in contention for a championship.
This isn't the time to roll the dice.
I talked to 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman a couple weeks back, and he emphasized a sort of groupthink, describing Smith's near-perfect performance against Arizona in Week 8 as "a great night for us at the position." He went on to say that, as is the case with any other position, there are a set of things the Niners look for from their quarterback in each game, and Smith "does a very good job of quarterbacking within that context."
Can Kaepernick do better? Maybe. But the Niners spent the early part of last year simplifying the offense, because so many of their players had been in a different system every year for a half-decade. San Francisco built the offense back up around Smith. A ton of progress has been made.
Perhaps Smith is in his final season as a Niner and Kaepernick is the long-term answer. But at this point of the year, there'd simply be too much risk in hitting the reset button on the development of the offense.
I vote for Colin Kaepernick -- for now -- because of the simple fact he realized the best pass catcher on the team needed the football. Niners tight end Vernon Davis returned to the stat sheet Monday after a long hiatus, giving the offense a dimension it had been missing.
Most importantly, changing quarterbacks wouldn't rip the team apart, because while everyone respects Alex Smith and would have no issue having him start again, he's always been someone who you knew was going to be replaced at some point.
But I'd also temper expectations for Kaepernick. He is still raw, and as teams see more tape of him, it'll become harder for him to succeed. For now, he can run around and make plays because opponents don't "get" him yet. Let's see where things are in two weeks.
Jim Harbaugh has a very tough decision to make, but fortunately he's choosing between two players who have performed at a very high level this season. Personally, I'd stick with Alex Smith as the starter. If Smith returns at the level he was playing at prior to his concussion, the 49ers will keep rolling. If his play falls off even just a little bit, it would be very easy to hand the offense over to Colin Kaepernick.
Kaepernick played great on Monday, but we're judging him on a very small sample size. In 2006, Arizona Cardinals' rookie quarterback Matt Leinart put up good numbers in just his second NFL start, which, coincidentally, came against the Chicago Bears. However, Leinart was unable to consistently perform at that level as the Cardinals' full-time starting quarterback.
I do believe that Kaepernick is far more talented than Leinart, but I'd be a little hesitant to bench the NFL's third-rated passer following one good start from his backup.
When Jim Harbaugh says he wants to play the "hot hand," I have to believe that by "hot hand," he really means "not Alex Smith." Smith is now on the verge of being "Drew Bledsoed" out of the Niners' starting quarterback position. (I've updated the antiquated phrase "Wally Pipped" to make it both current and more NFL-centric.)
I really believe Harbaugh won't hesitate to start Colin Kaepernick over Alex Smith. I mean, the 49ers were allegedly in pursuit of Peyton Manning this spring, and that would lead me to believe Harbaugh wanted to explore other options at quarterback. Turns out, his best option might have been on the bench all along.
The key is that Kaepernick gives the 49ers a dimension that makes them difficult to defend. Smith has been fine, but he's not as athletic as Kaepernick. Let's not overlook what Kaepernick did to one of the best defenses in the NFL.
I see no way Harbaugh can go back to Smith, at least not right now. I would give Kaepernick a chance this week against the New Orleans Saints. To me, he gives the 49ers' offense a new dynamic; they'd be replacing a game manager with a game changer.
I would stay with Alex Smith. He has played well for the San Francisco 49ers since last season and should not be replaced because his backup had a good night. Colin Kaepernick was impressive Monday, but teams have to careful about letting a one-game performance convince them to make a change at quarterback.
The best parts of Kaepernick's game against the Bears came in the first quarter and during the first drive of the third quarter. These are the drives that are usually scripted. During the rest of the game, Kaepernick was a 50 percent passer.
The Bears are not difficult to prepare for, schematically, and thus do not present a great challenge mentally. The New Orleans Saints, on the other hand, will give the Niners more looks; their defensive schemes will be more challenging to read when the two teams face off Sunday. It's also important to remember that the Niners will be on the road. As teams get more tape on Kaepernick, they will get a better idea as to how to defend against him.
It's fitting that this pigskin drama is playing out in San Francisco, a city synonymous with streetcars. Like Stella in Tennessee Williams' play "A Streetcar Named Desire," Alex Smith must be feeling a little mistreated and underappreciated by Jim Harbaugh (née Stanley Kowalski?).
Smith punctuated a 13-3 season with the postseason win many thought he couldn't pull off against the New Orleans Saints, but he was ultimately undone by a couple of special-teams turnovers in the NFC title game. Follow that with the Niners' offseason pursuit of Peyton Manning and now Harbaugh's apparent infatuation with Colin Kaepernick. Poor Alex.
What's done is done. For better or worse, it seems Harbaugh has made his choice -- he can't throw the ever-loyal Smith back under center with the pretty "new" arm lurking on the sideline. Don't be surprised, though, when the postseason pressure proves to be more than Kaepernick can handle, and we hear Harbaugh desperately shout, "Alex!"