In last Monday’s much hyped NFC showdown between play - off hopefuls the Chicago Bears and San Francisco 49ers, debutant Quarterback Colin Kaepernick lit the blue touch paper for a 32-7 decimation of a team that coming into the game, boasted a defense ranked 1st in takeaways, 5th against the pass, and 10th overall.
Kaepernick, in for the injured Alex Smith (out following concussion sustained in week 10 against the St. Louis Rams), produced a display of veteran poise, utterly betraying the notion of inexperience, going 16 of 23 (69.5%) for 243 - yards (184 of which coming in the first half alone, 57 coming via a completion to Kyle Williams as the first quarter drew to a close) throwing two touchdowns (to both Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree respectively), and committing zero turnovers.
Harbaugh described the performance as “A-plus-plus”, Vernon Davis boldly proclaimed Kaepernick “The Man”, but wasn’t Alex Smith the man?
After all, this is the same man, a man who many look upon as nothing more than a ‘game manager’, that ‘game managed’ the 9ers all the way to the NFC Championship game last year. Only to be denied a place in the big dance by a botched punt return.
Prior to his concussion, Smith and his ‘game management’ had established a passer rating of 104.1, the third best in the NFL, he’s 19-5-1 as a starter under Harbaugh, has completed 25 of his last 27 passes for a completion percentage of 70, and has thrown for 1,731 - yards, compiling 13 touchdowns to 5 interceptions along the way.
The old adage suggests ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, but it appears despite claims from fans that ”Smith just wins, and that what counts”, Smith could well wind up with the carpet whipped from under his feat once again, if the Kaepernick situation is anything to go by.
Even before recent events, Smith had to sit back and endure flirtation with Payton Manning, and his own team mates questioning his standing within the team. Especially if Michael Crabtree “He’s the Quarterback?” “I’m just asking”, comments to a reporter during a June 7th work out in summer 2011 were anything to go by.
However, Smith could have sulked and greatly exaggerated this evident slight on his credibility (as a Quarterback), but he pressed on, and as mentioned, led the 49ers to a 13 - 3 regular season record, and an appearance in the NFC Championship game.
Despite his evident improvements under Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Gregg Roman, there’s an equally compelling argument that Smith lacks the x - factor required to take the team that one stage further, many observers feeling he lacks Kaepernick’s superior arm strength and movement in the pocket, the kind of intangibles that would have taken San Francisco beyond a New York Giants team that for the most part, they outplayed.
An assertion that’s given even greater substance when you look at how influential Smith’s performance was in the loss to the Giants, especially when you factor in his 12 of 26 for 192 - yards,and an inability to concert on third downs, going 1 of 13.
Perhaps this is why Harbaugh has turned to Kaepernick? Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and we’ll never truly know how the 23 year old University of Nevada star would have fared against that Giants pass rush, but it’s conceivable Harbaugh’s conservatism and subsequent dependence on the running game, was born out of concerns regarding Smith’s ability to make the big plays.
That being said, wasn’t this the same Quarterback that engineered that quite brilliant game winning drive against the Saints in the Divisional round? That same Vernon Davis 14-yard touchdown catch from Smith’s precision throw with just nine seconds to play?
Regardless of their current position (8 -2 - 1, and top of the NFC West), Harbaugh may have a problem on his hands.
Logic would say that we live in a ‘what have you done for me lately? league, and therefore given another solid outing, ironically against the aforementioned Saints (albeit without Sean Payton, and the infamous Gregg Williams), you have to keep faith with the hot hand; especially if that hot hand produces another 200 (15 of 25 for 64% completion percentage) yard plus performance, (although he did blot his copy book with a pick, but it did proved inconsequential, as the 49ers came away with a 31 – 21 win) that included a sumptuous 45 - yard completion on 3rd down to Delanie Walker.
However, to cloud matters further, Harbaugh stated in his post-match conference that Kaepernick started mainly due to concerns regarding Smith’s health “The fact he had symptoms seven to eight days later, I’m not going to put a guy back out there”, something Smith seemed completely at odds with when pressed on the matter “Obviously I want to play. I want to start. I think I should, but it’s not my decision. I’m part of this team and it’s great to go out and get a win” hmmm….
NFL analyst Gregg Rosenthal said prior to the Saints game, that Harbaugh would be making the right call from a footballing standpoint, if he were to select the youngster in place of Smith “Kaepernick is a wildly athletic quarterback with clearly improving accuracy. We can't just ignore how well he played Monday night. It was only one start, but it was a one hell of a start.
It was the type of start Smith might not be capable of. We don't fault Harbaugh for wanting to see more”….” Playing Smith this week would be playing it safe. The 49ers have no use for that”.
Whether it proves to the right call in the long term, as far as both footballing success and team unity are concerned, remains to be seen…
Who should be 'the man' for the 49ers? Alex Smith or Colin Kaepernick?
image: © Goose #19