Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Tale of Two Quarterbacks: Smith or Kaepernick?

If you have not heard, the 49ers are in a quarterback conundrum. When starting quarterback Alex Smith suffered a concussion in week ten in the game against the Rams, he was sidelined for the following two weeks. In his place, Colin Kaepernick, the 49ers' 2011 draft pick, stepped up and won tough games against the Chicago Bears and the New Orleans Saints. As we enter into week thirteen of the NFL season and Alex Smith is now cleared to play, everyone wants to know: Who will be the starting quarterback for the 49ers?

In my opinion, I do not think there is any other answer than Colin Kaepernick. I am not saying this because he is definitively the better quarterback or that he was earned the right to start. What I see is that the 49ers are presented with and taking advantage of a unique opportunity. When Smith went down with the concussion, it allowed an opening for the team to explore what they have with Kaepernick. Concussions are tricky injuries, and depending on the player and the severity of the injury, there is more or less pressure to see him return to the field. Earlier in the season, 49ers offensive tackle Joe Staley suffered a concussion in a rather brutal hit during the Sunday game against the New York Giants but was cleared to play for the Thursday night game against the Seattle Seahawks. Although Staley had the go-ahead from the doctors to play, some were left wondering how it was possible, or even advisable, on a short week? Staley is a big part of the offensive line and is not easily replaceable (if at all), and there would likely be more pressure for him to perform in the next game. In no way am I making a statement that something insidious was going on, but I am pointing out that it has not been common for players to return after so short a time. When it became clear that Smith was continuing to suffer concussion-like symptoms in the days following the hit, Colin Kaepernick got the nod and seized his opportunity. He had a solid performance that indicated he had the potential to make plays that Alex Smith cannot. I think John Harris of the Overnight Takeover on Yahoo Sports Radio says it best, "Kaepernick can give the 49ers different... and is the type of quarterback who can give defenses nightmares." He was able to utilize Vernon Davis and make some deep throws that Alex Smith just cannot do. When you watched him play, you could see that he has the promise of being a dynamic quarterback. He had been sitting on the sidelines because Harbaugh was still developing his talents and Smith had earned the right to be the number one guy. However, Alex's injury is allowing the 49ers to continue seeing what Kaepernick can do, and what's more is that if things start to sour, Harbaugh can always go back to Smith. The way he can present it to the media is that they decided to "ride the hot hand" who had been Kaepernick but is not any more. What the 49ers have going for them is that they have a great record and playoff birth. If Kaepernick bombs out a game or two, things will probably not change a whole lot for them. They may not clinch the seed that they had wanted, but they are still going to make the playoffs. I think it would be much harder to go the other way. If you go back to Smith but he is not able to perform, there will be far more backlash to then switch to Kaepernick.

The 49ers have to take this opportunity because when Kaepernick was their second-round pick in 2011, it became clear that Alex was probably not going to be the quarterback in the long run. The feeling was that since it would be first-year head coach's first pick of the draft and his being a quarterback guru, this was a significant sign that Jim Harbaugh knew there was something special about that young man. This is the time to see where he is in his development because no matter how he looks in practice, there is absolutely no way to see how he performs in game situations except in, well, game situations. It seems like he is ready, but we've only seen two games. Starting this season allows the 49ers the ability to evaluate Kaepernick and how they intend to make roster decisions going forward.

And yes, this really sucks for Alex Smith. San Francisco has not been a friendly place for him. Although he never lived up to the expectations, fans have never embraced him. The team struggled for many years with him at the helm, but it was not entirely his fault as shown when Harbaugh was hired as head coach. Smith had been with several head coaches and offensive coordinators. It is not so simple to learn new play books all the time, and it was never clear that they all played to Smith's strengths. However, under Harbaugh, something clicked and Smith was able to perform well. He was not the type of quarterback that was going to impress you with incredible arm strength or anything like that, but he knew how to not make those fatal mistakes to get those wins. It was only last season that Alex Smith took the 49ers to the NFC Championship game. Henry Wofford on 95.7 The Game argued that Harbaugh should show some loyalty to Smith because of what he was able to do last year and his 6-2-1 record this season. Wofford has a point, but the NFL is not about being loyal to a guy. If it were, Peyton Manning would probably still be with the Colts. The NFL is about winning games, and Kaepernick is doing just that right now. Wofford also pointed out that it is not fair that an injury can just stunt your career so bluntly. He's right. It is unfair. That's why you get your guaranteed money and hope for the best. It's sad but true.

Head coach Jim Harbaugh is expected to make an announcement very soon about the status of the head quarterback. I think he'll be naming Colin Kaepernick as the starting quarterback.