Was Jim Harbaugh Right to Make Colin Kaepernick the 49ers' Starting Quarterback?


If you didn’t get a chance hear Jim Harbaugh announce who his starting quarterback will be this Sunday against St. Louis, you missed one of the all-time uncomfortable moments in coaching history. As you’ve probably heard by now, Harbaugh is going with Colin Kaepernick.

It’ll be our plan to start Colin and prepare him to make that start this week against the Rams,” Harbaugh said during Wednesday’s news conference. “The rationale is you’ve got two quarterbacks that we feel great about as the starting quarterback. Both have earned it. Both deserve it. Alex over a long period of time; Colin by virtue of the last three games. What tips the scale is Colin, we believe, has the hot hand and we’ll go with Colin. … And we’ll go with Alex. They’re both our guys.”


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Losing his job is nothing new for Alex Smith in what has been a roller coaster eight-year NFL career filled with promotions and demotions. Before suffering a concussion Alex Smith’s last full game was an impressive win on Monday Night Football at Arizona on Oct. 29 that earned him NFC Offensive Player of the Week honors. In a near-perfect night, Smith completed 18 of 19 passes for 232 yards and three touchdowns without an interception. He had a 157.1 passer rating on the night and connected with nine different receivers.

At the time Smith went down he was leading the NFL in completion percentage and had guided the 49ers a 6-2 record. Smith, an efficient, mistake-averse performer characteristics often associated with teams dominated by their defense has taken more hits than a crash dummy, yet he kept coming back for more. An admirable teammate indeed, Smith proved last year that in the right situation he’s a quarterback that you can win with. The funny thing is, that right situation is exactly what the 49ers have. To emphasize his fit, in the playoffs last season Smith went blow for blow with Drew Brees when he had to, getting the upper hand in the end. And Smith certainly was not the reason the 49ers lost to the Giants.

On the other side of the coin there’s Colin Kaepernick. In his two starts Kaepernick he’s been sacked just once, despite being under constant pressure last Sunday against the Saints. In contrast, Smith was sacked 22 times in his eight full games this season. Kaepernick has 10 pass completions of 20 yards or more in his two starts while in his eight full games, Smith had 22. Kaepernick who has different skillsets and a plethora of physical talent is a threat to run on every down and a polished passer as well. He’s a “better Tebow” if you will. On the year Kaepernick has completed 48 of 74 passes for 680 yards and three touchdowns with one interception with a 102.3 passer rating. He’s also rushed the ball 31 times for 214 yards (a gaudy 6.9 yard per carry) and 4 TDs.

In the end Jim Harbaugh is going with the upside that Kaepernick can give. One needs only to take a look at Colin’s college career to figure out what intrigues Harbaugh. Kaepernick is the only quarterback in the history of Division I FBS college football to have passed for over 10,000 yards and rushed for over 4,000 yards in a collegiate career. Kaepernick is also the only Division 1 FBS QB to have passed for over 2,000 yards and rushed for over 1,000 yards in a single season three times in a career (consecutively).

The story here isn’t so much that Harbaugh chose Kaepernick, you could make an argument for either guy and he had to pick someone. The story here is what Harbaugh said…

“…we’ll go with Colin. … And we’ll go with Alex. They’re both our guys.”

Does Harbaugh really think that by throwing a bone to Alex Smith and giving him a shout out that Smith feels better? You would think that Harbaugh being a former quarterback wouldn’t waste his time playing that game. Smith is not a dope, he sees the handwriting on the wall. Barring a catastrophic injury, Kaepernick is the quarterback of the future and Smith knows that he will not be on the team next year. Smith is no longer playing for the team; he’s playing for himself and auditioning for a job for next season. If Kaepernick plays poorly or goes down with an injury and Harbaugh turns to Smith and says, “You’re in,” don’t expect him to be the ultimate team player. Smith’s reaction, justifiably, will likely be, “Oh, so now you need me?”

I don’t know what Jim Harbaugh was trying to do with his hedging comments. It is what it is and he shouldn’t try to hide what’s going on. He looked like a buffoon. As the head coach he needs to be unwavering and decisive. I’m sure this was not an easy decision or one that Harbaugh even wanted to make. Smith has been a loyal soldier and performed well in his duties, but this is the NFL and as we all know that stands for “Not For Long.”

Alex Smith will show up on someone else’s roster next season and he’ll get another shot, but his time in San Francisco is now over. Harbaugh has pushed all the right buttons as an NFL head coach to date, but if he wants to be taken seriously as one of the top echelon coaches he needs to simply call it like it is. Right or wrong, Harbaugh’s answer should have simply been, “Colin Kaepernick is our quarterback now, I think he gives us the best chance to win.”

There are some who say that it’s not right for someone to loose their job to injury, that it doesn’t send the right message to the guys in the locker room. To that I say, tell that to Wally Pipp. Pro sports isn’t about playing time, getting everyone in the game and being fair to everyone on the roster, it’s about winning. The coach puts the best players out on the field that he thinks will give the team the best chance of winning. Period. I don’t know if Jim Harbaugh did that or not, but he certainly made an awkward spectacle out of it…

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