I’m still trying to figure out what the hell is supposed to be wrong about a “quarterback controversy.”
For instance, the Chicago Bears and Pittsburgh Steelers would love to have what could be defined as a quarterback controversy right now.
Which, apparently, is what Jim Harbaugh is “dealing with” in San Francisco with incumbent but injured starter Alex Smith and his precocious backup Colin Kaepernick.
First, A Little Historical Context
For his Hall of Fame induction and four Super Bowl trophies back in the day, there was a time that Terry Bradshaw not only had to fight Terry Hanratty for the starting job, but for a while also Jefferson Street Joe Gilliam.
That was not a bad thing.
Neither was Steve Young waiting in the wings and eventually taking over for the legendary Joe Montana when he could not answer the bell for the 1991 season. The San Francisco 49ers ended up confirming their quarterback for the rest of the decade, who would lead the franchise to a fifth Super Bowl Championship. Montana, meanwhile, was able to resurface and finish his career with a couple decent seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Then there was Brett Favre versus Aaron Rodgers. It got awkward when the Packers organization decided to nudge Brett out the door, but bottom line was that it was a 38-year old against a younger model. It’s called age, and it eventually claims 100 percent of everyone in pro sports and life itself.
Which leads us to Alex Smith versus Colin Kaepernick.
San Francisco’s “QB Controversy”
Actually, we’re not talking about a quarterback controversy…just an embarrassment of riches.
Under almost all circumstances, Alex Smith has done NOTHING to lose his starting job. Smith has completed 70% of his passes, has a QB rating of 104, and has led his team to a 7-2 record.
The only issues are that he had one flat performance at home versus the New York Giants, and he suffered a concussion a couple weeks back.
Oh, and the Niners had someone every bit as good waiting in the wings.
The first I heard of Colin Kaepernick was a couple years ago listening to Mike Leach on a satellite radio program. At the time, he instructed listeners to first check out this kid out at the University of Nevada before making a decision on who the best college QB in America was.
As it turns out, Leach was ahead of the curve in identifying this talent.
Months later Kaepernick would become an early-second round NFL Draft choice. As far as Niners Nation is concerned, this makes up for spending a number one overall choice in 2005 on Smith, who has spent the last several seasons trying to measure up to the unattainable bar Aaron Rodgers set for that particular draft class.
Earlier this past week, after Kaepernick obliterated the supposedly fearsome Bears’ defense, Harbaugh hinted to the media that he would go with the ‘hot hand’ at quarterback going forward.
Actually, his decision is a no-brainer.
And the worst kept secret in the world is Kaepernick will start in New Orleans on Sunday, against a team Alex Smith beat in dramatic fashion last January.
Why Kaepernick Should Start Over Smith
The ancient and outdated adage in pro football is that no starter should lose his position due to injury. But there are extenuating circumstances in play here.
Let’s attempt to make the case assuming Alex Smith is cleared to play and should start against the Saints.
First off, the team would be going against the momentum of Kaepernick’s performance in the Niners 32-7 rout of the Bears just six days earlier.
There is also the fact that Smith is still coming off a concussion.
If Alex is indeed cleared to play, he can indeed dress as a number two. But even if cleared, the fact remains he suffered a concussion just two weeks ago.
I will put a disclaimer here that my personal medical credentials are lacking, but playing Smith still carries an elevated risk of a second concussion.
Now, if this is Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, or Jay Cutler in Chicago, or Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh, you go ahead and get the starting QB back on the horse as soon as possible, because with those teams (and most others), the number two is an obvious downgrade. Those teams are as dead as the clown in the Macy’s Parade without their starting QB.
San Francisco is not in that situation, as proven last Monday night.
Why take a chance on throwing Smith back on the field, and risk losing him for the season, which would then leave you without a backup insurance policy for Kaepernick.
As was the case by the Bay a generation earlier, the current number two is fully licensed to pilot the scarlet and gold ship.
Also, keep in mind that this week is Week 12, not the NFC Divisional Playoff round.
The San Francisco 49ers remain in a very good situation. The Seattle Seahawks are still in play (SF at SEA/Week 16), but SF remains a good bet to win the NFC West. The team is playing for playoff positioning and a first-round bye – which is important. (In fact, that tie versus the Rams does hurt San Francisco, as they likely will not finish tied with any other teams in the NFC, making the Week 1 win in Green Bay irrelevant for tie-break purposes.)
My point is that this is an incredible opportunity to get Kaepernick some valuable seat time over the next month. If the point comes that dictates Alex Smith returning to the fray, then it can play out. It’s quite possible that Alex may be needed off the bench in Seattle or in New England in coming weeks.
And of course, do not ignore the Niners defense, perhaps the best the league has seen since the 2000 Baltimore Ravens. The team previously considered to have the best D since the ’00 Ravens was the 2012 Chicago Bears – the unit that Kaepernick tore apart on Monday night.
Another thought to consider regarding Niners at New England: you might want to show a different look to a team that you very well could be seeing again in February, and in my opinion the Pats and Niners are currently the two best teams in the NFL.
A Little More Historical Context
There’s nothing better than an Alex Smith insurance policy, and you can look back to the dawn of the current Patriots dynasty for a history lesson on this.
An untested/unproven (at that point) Tom Brady was thrown into the fire early in the 2001 season when Drew Bledsoe was injured. In the AFC Championship in Pittsburgh that year, Brady sprained an ankle and Bledsoe came in and led the Patriots to victory, before again giving way to Tom for the Patriots Super Bowl win over the Rams the following week.
To his credit, Alex Smith (per usual) has more than taken the high road, and knows the big picture as much as anyone.
Again, this is a quarterback luxury, not a controversy. The ‘controversy’ comes after the season when the Niners’ brass has to make a decision, and at that point cutting ties with Smith will probably be the best option.
I wouldn’t cry too many tears for Alex even then, well except perhaps for his final destination.
Mark Sanchez…or Alex Smith??
Yes, the Niners could reel in a good haul from the Jets on that one.