In 2010 I lost my mind over the sound fundamentals of Troy Smith, and was ready to leave Alex Smith on the slag heap. I was wrong in that case, and I hesitate to anoint Colin Kaepernick the newest Alex Smith replacement today, because of the way Smith has played to this point. However, one cannot avoid the talent and skill that Kaepernick displayed as the 49ers dismantled the Bears 32-7 on Monday Night Football.
If you’ve been following me on Twitter, you will have seen my thoughts on the situation last night, but I wanted to encapsulate them here in a blog post so that you can read the full extent of my opinion on the matter.
Alex Smith had a career year in 2011, and is poised to match or eclipse that in 2012. He is having what is close to a Pro Bowl year, near the top of the league in completion percentage, yards per attempt, passer rating and QBR. He is scoring more touchdowns and hitting on more deep plays than 2011. His only drawback thus far is yards per game, attempts per game, and perhaps some missed opportunities left on the field.
It is my opinion that a team that is contending for a championship, who is positioning itself for playoff seeding, cannot afford to ditch their starting Quarterback simply because his backup had a great start. Alex Smith has been playing well, has a great command of the offense, and if anything he displayed a renewed confidence against Arizona, delivering throws he didn’t normally make. I think Smith was poised to experience an ascension until a concussion took him out for this game.
However, I think a perfect example to look at is when Tom Brady replaced Drew Bledsoe. Bledsoe was playing fine and the Patriots were winning when he went down with an injury. Brady came in to relieve him and played better. It wasn’t about bad vs. good, it was about good vs. better. Brady came in and it was his job from then on out.
To compare the two, Alex Smith is a cerebral player who can see the play within the play, diagnose the defense, know who is going to be open and deliver the ball. Colin Kaepernick is an instinctual player, who can see the play outside the play. When Alex Smith encounters pressure, he first sees the pressure to avoid it, taking his eyes off the development of the play downfield. Last night Kaepernick displayed an innate ability to feel the pressure, sliding in the pocket without looking away from the play. It is an innate ability and can’t be taught.
An argument can be made that it’s not Smith’s fault that the team was so bad at protecting the passer for so many years, that he has learned to look at the pressure to avoid costly hits. That is perfectly logical, but it cannot be used as an argument to keep Kaepernick off the field. Kaepernick must be judged according to his own merits, not whether another player has overcome a particular issue.
One also cannot get away from the fact that against the Minnesota Vikings, the New York Giants and the Seattle Seahawks, Alex Smith left a lot on the field. All three are fairly strong defenses. Last night Colin Kaepernick dismantled the defense of the Chicago Bears, as of last night the best in scoring defense and turnovers. But also remember Arizona had one of the better pass defenses and Alex Smith dismantled them.
It must be said that Lovie Smith, when asked about preparing for two different quarterbacks, said “we’re going to prepare to stop the run.” Their gameplan was to keep the ground game from beating them, leaving them susceptible to the pass game. They weren’t prepared for Kaepernick to beat them in the air, and it showed. Had Alex Smith been starting, I believe he also could have taken advantage of this gameplan, but perhaps not to the degree Kaepernick did. We’ll never know.
I think Colin Kaepernick has a great skill set and a fresh mindset. He is not carrying the weight of several years of struggle. He’s supremely confident, well-prepared, with a coaching and team support structure Alex Smith never had. However I think Alex Smith’s experience gives him the edge on the road in a hostile environment. That’s why I believe Harbaugh will start Smith if he gains clearance from the doctors. Either way, the 49ers will face a weak New Orleans defense.
Harbaugh should be relieved, and so should the fans, knowing we have a capable backup who can come in and win. Alex Smith should understand that if he holds back, if he plays too conservatively, if the team struggles, there is a guy behind him who can play. If the team finds itself in a critical must-win situation like the NFC Championship last year, and he feels the team needs a spark, I think Kaepernick will get the call again this year.
This is much more than a Troy Smith scenario. Kaepernick displayed a wide range of talents over the last game and a half. The ability to not just scramble, but slide in the pocket and deliver the ball. The ability to make a couple reads to the right, find no one open, drift to the left and buy time, and throw a perfect spiral right on target against his body. He threw the ball into a ridiculously tight window to Vernon Davis, and lobbed perfect deep balls over close defenders. He showed he can run the play as drawn up, and can save the play when it breaks down. He showed he can diagnose a defense and audible to the right call. If he is not ready to claim the title of full-time starter, he has shown he is ready to play football at the NFL level.
If you ask me who gives the team the “best chance to win,” I don’t think it’s that simple. I don’t believe either guy gives the team less of a chance to win than the other. I am comfortable with either one, but I think Alex’s experience gives him an edge right now. I think Kaepernick’s ceiling is higher, but Smith has played too well to simply cast him aside at this point.
If Alex remains the starter til season’s end, I believe Harbaugh will make the switch to Kaepernick in the offseason, and I think Alex will ask for his release. If Harbaugh switches to Kaepernick now, it could interrupt the momentum the team had through to the bye week, or it could be a Brady vs. Bledsoe transition. If Alex keeps the job and the team wins a Super Bowl? Then I wouldn’t want to be Jim Harbaugh!
Either way, I think that Colin Kaepernick is the likely Quarterback of the future for the 49ers. It’s only a matter of when.