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By TED SILLANPAA

It’s difficult to imagine my having more completely misjudged Colin Kaepernick’s ability to win as the 49ers’ quarterback. I didn’t think he was ready. He’s ready. (There’s no way to offer a mea culpa without giving the impression this is about me. It’s not about me. Honest.)

Kaepernick turned in an electrifying effort in his first start in beating the Chicago Bears, then turned in a serviceable performance in  Sunday’s start and victory over the New Orleans Saints. If nothing else, Kaepernick shows that when everything else is equal, the fastest athlete is always preferable. He’s big and strong, but his speed is what stands out.

It’s unfortunate that fans and the media spent so many years bashing Alex Smith that they are now overstating the impact of what Kaepernick’s doing. Kaepernick appears to be the better athlete and has found an ability to hit open targets that he didn’t show as recently as last summer camp. He’s not making mistakes and, based on what little we know of reading defenses and making adjustments, he’s got the mind to play the position.

The fans and media have, rightfully in most instances, bashing Smith that they want Kaepernick’s debut as an NFL starter to be something like what we’ve seen in the debuts of Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III. Compare Kaepernick to how Smith has played at his worst and he does look like Luck or RGIII. Compare Kaepernick, honestly, to Smith at quarterback under Jim Harbaugh and Kaepernick becomes a revelation, but not exactly a breakthrough star destined to do what no other 49ers’ quarterback could do.

Kaepernick completed over 60 percent of his passes for an average gain of under 10 yards apiece Sunday. Smith completed nearly every pass he threw a few weeks ago and the media torched him because his yards-per-completion figure was under 10 yards. Admittedly, Kaepernick did complete some big passes downfield, but it takes the worst Smith-bashing media type or fan to create the impression that Smith never completed a pass deeper down the field.

Kaepernick engineered a big scoring drive to open the second half Sunday. He completed a third down pass and he had one of those runs that understandably leave 49ers’ fans imagining that this guy’s capable of a lot of things. The drive, though, was all about Frank Gore running behind the outstanding offensive line. It was a little better effort than the QB Smith has come up with, but Kaepernick didn’t march the team down the field like Joe Montana or Steve Young.

There’s room between being really young, really good and possessing an upside Smith doesn’t have at this point and being the guy who will lead the 49ers to the Super Bowl. Opposing defenses will adjust to Kaepernick. (That doesn’t mean he won’t find a way to beat them, like he has so far. I can see this guy is capable of doing special things.) And, the 49ers are a team built around a great defense and that offensive line. It’s foolish to ignore the fact that a second-year quarterback who likes to run around wing it could, in theory, make mistakes that would slow the 49ers.

Heading into the Rams game, there was no reason to criticize Smith’s performance. Well, no reason based in reality. The 49ers have been winning with Smith. They’ve been winning with Kaepernick. Without two pass interceptions returned for touchdowns on Sunday, the 49ers might well have lost with Kaepernick at quarterback. Would that have meant fans and media types who don’t like Smith raved a little less about Kaepernick? What if he’d played exactly the same game in a loss?

The 49ers can win with Kaepernick or they can win with Smith. I’ll let someone else worry about how a quarterback suffering a concussion and losing his starting job will impact the NFL’s fight to make the game safer from concussions. I can’t imagine a starting QB who’ll go quietly to the sidelines with a concussion after seeing what’s happened to Smith.

It might be worth looking at what we’re actually seeing and what we’ve seen since Harbaugh arrived in San Francisco. For example, let’s not pretend we gathered sitting in the upper deck or in front of the  TV set that Kaepernick’s making great strides reading defenses. I’m happy to let Harbaugh, who knows far more about his quarterbacks than we do, play the two any way he feels works best.

Just don’t say that the 49ers have accomplished anything in the last two weeks with Kaepernick that they couldn’t conceivably have accomplished with Smith. Kaepernick’s plenty good without people over-hyping his considerable skills.

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Comments

25 Comments

  1. Matt Witthaus

    “I don’t know what it is, but the offense FEELS different with Kaepernick in there.” Rod Woodson on KNBR.

    Ted, this is not about statistics or whether Utah has played admirably. He has. Of course he has. But his abilities and tendencies LIMIT him and the level to which he can ascend. That’s why he was never suited as much more than a backup or a starter on a team that’s not got as much expectation connected to it as the starting QB position in San Francisco comes with. When Alex is under no pressure to deliver, when everone expect NOTHING of him, he excels. As such, Smith was never going to keep the job. They may have won with him but would never win a championship because defenses have already adjusted to him as you claim they will eventually adjust to Kaepernick, and Smith hasn’t adjusted. Maybe Smith completed passes of over thirty yards but they were a rarity, you know this, and teams that got burned by them didn’t get burned again. He would have been smarter to NOT stay in SF and take that contract in Miami. Too late. I feel for him, I do, but to quote Atticus Finch, and substitute “team” for “man”, “My compassion does not go so far as to put my team’s life at stake.” Under Smith, we will always fall short. Believe it. With the Turlock Tornado, the future is bright. Finally. GO NINERS.

    p.s. Harbaugh is doing Smith a favor by benching him. His tendencies are going to get him killed. Just an observation.

    November 27th, 2012 12:07 am

  2. Paul

    I think your right that they can win with either. Especially the way the defense is playing and the offensive line. But we can’t have any rush to judgement here. We still havn’t seen him handle a defense that brings everybody like they did early in
    Smith’s career. We know he can run when designed or when he has to. Let’s hope the O line can keep relentless pass rushes to a minimum. As time goes by we will know… but… stay ready Mr. Smith….

    November 27th, 2012 1:40 am

  3. overtime

    Paul…Fine analysis. Stay in touch. Appreciate you reading. Ted

    November 27th, 2012 12:37 pm

  4. overtime

    Matt…You know you’re saying that the 49ers are “always going to fail” under Smith and he’s like 19-5, 20-6 in the last couple years, right? The offense does look different with Kaepernick and he is a superior athlete and has all kinds of talent. No question. Smith delivered against the Saints last season in the playoffs and must’ve delivered at some other crucial point given the 49ers record under Harbaugh. I’m fine with whatever Harbaugh decides. I don’t think fans and the media should compare Kaepernick’s initial performances to their impressions of Smith overall for all the years. The “Smith never could’ve done that” thinking is understandable, It’s just not based in fact. He’s done plenty in the last 2 years. Kaepernick, potentially, can do more. If not for the 2 defensive TDs Sunday, they’re 1-1 under Kaepernick … then what? Good thoughts. TED

    November 27th, 2012 12:43 pm

  5. Bob Stockwell

    What bugs me about all of this is how much Smith did to enable the 49ers to have a good start last year, organizing and paying for a “pre-season” camp with Harbaugh’s new offense. He’s been the good soldier through all of it, and people want to forget that and not give credit. Yes, that’s pro ball, but it still sucks. The team has finally put together a pretty good offensive line after letting Smith get hammered for years with the ridiculous game plans of the Mikes. I’m not sure that Kaepernick is better — he looks a lot like Smith to me, he just has a LOT better team around him and a coach that enables him to play his game.

    November 27th, 2012 1:04 pm

  6. Jaws

    I agree but Kaep gives the offense a shot in the arm it’s better then playing it safe

    November 27th, 2012 2:22 pm

  7. Matt Witthaus

    If the D doesn’t make those two plays then what? He puts a drive together to score a touchdown like he did at the start of the third to break the tie. If you look back into memory, and throw the dad blasted stats out the bloody window, you don’t remember Smith doing that with consistency. His conservative nature will betray him and he WON’T MAKE THE THROW. Kaep will. Maybe he will make mistakes. Maybe those mistakes will prove costly. I don’t care and I don’t think many other fans do either. It’s been eight years for Utah. We want to see something other than a boring, ball control approach that only survives games because the defense provides turnovers. I can think of at least ten t/o’s from last year that failed to produce points and only succeeded on keeping the ball away from the other offense. That’s not what Niner fans want to see, and with today’s margin for error so thin in the pros, it will eventually cut you down. The receiving corps, for that matter, don’t want it either. We have too many weapons in that department for Frank Gore to go down to zero in the playoffs because he’s been getting the bloody check-down for eighteen quarters. You know it’s true. EVERYBODY DOES. All this deference to Smith is a joke. So is this dance that Harbaugh has to do with the media to protect Smith’s career and still do what’s right for the team. Just announce it and get it over with already.

    (note) the quote attributed to Rod Woodson from KNBR actually came from Rod BROOKS. Matt regrets the error.

    November 27th, 2012 5:53 pm

  8. overtime

    Matt…I hesitate to say what Smith wouldn’t have done in a situation, just like I hesitate to say, “Take away the 2 defensive TDs and the 49ers would’ve just scored 2 offensive TDs and won anyway.” I’m not offering Smith any great deference, just acknowledging that if Kaepernick is 20-5 or 19-6 or whatever after as many starts under Harbaugh as Smith has … people would say, “It’s about winning. He’s winning. You can’t bench the quarterback who’s 20-5!!” … Harbaugh played the game and in the game we know that guys don’t typically lose starting jobs because they got hurt. Smith was good enough before the injury. Kaepernick has played well. It’s just one of those unwritten sports rules that I rarely agree with … you don’t take a guy’s job because he got hurt. Harbaugh’s understandably sensitive to taking Smith’s job because he got hurt, even though Harbaugh can see Kaepernick playing exceptionally well. And…if Matt starts referring to himself in the third person, we’re in trouble! TED

    November 27th, 2012 6:22 pm

  9. overtime

    Jaws…Thanks for reading. Kaepernick has gifts Smith lacks at this point. You can see that, among others, Poogs (a reader here) tends to think that letting the defense lead the way and avoiding the mistakes that might come with something other than playing it safe isn’t a good idea. But…only time will tell which of you is right. TED

    November 27th, 2012 6:26 pm

  10. overtime

    Bob…Thanks for checking in here. I appreciate it. Good points…all of them. 49ers fans so soured on Smith that they don’t want to do what you’ve done with Smith acknowledged that he has helped the club and won games under Harbaugh. We’ll find out which QB’s better soon enough, well … we’ll see which QB Harbaugh plays and that’ll be the QB who’s better, right? TED

    November 27th, 2012 6:29 pm

  11. Matt Witthaus

    Smith won games under Harbaugh because the defense gave him enough opportunities. They spent so much time on the field last year they could have pitched tents and camped out. I’m sick of all the nay sayers referring to Kaep in this cautionary manner and playing this game about respect and who loses their job to injury. You all need to stop thinking about the injury and realize that it was his play that led up to this point and the injury just provided the opportunity for a changing of the guard. Sorry for the tone, but I’m kind of irritated by how much pity is routinely heaped upon this guy, when at the end of the day he’s a mediocre quarterback who would have proven by now that he’s not the second best taken first overall in a QB thin draft, if he had the skills to do so. He hasn’t. He’s a backup at best, who’s kept this team in limbo offensively, despite all the seemingly gaudy numbers he’s put up. I realize, of course, what an absurd paradox that is, but there it is, nonetheless. This has been the Elephant In Utah’s Room his entire career. Nobody wants to admit being wrong. I would have loved to have been wrong in my assessment of his ability to overcome his inherent deficiencies, but I haven’t been. If Smith is re-installed as the QB, in deference to this unwritten rule, the offense will crawl back into conservative malaise again.

    November 27th, 2012 9:04 pm

  12. Matt Witthaus

    Sorry for the third person; it seemed the proper way :-P

    November 27th, 2012 9:05 pm

  13. Chuck

    Ted – I’m a Bay Area ex-pat and lifelong 49ers fan (watched them play at Kezar when John Brodie was quarterback) with family and friends in your neck of the woods (Sonoma). I admit that I’ve been a relatively harsh critic of Alex Smith. In my opinion, he’s at best a very good NFL quarterback but not (and I don’t think ever will be) an elite level quarterback. That said, I do sort of feel for him in his current situation. He hasn’t done anything to deserve losing the job as starting quarterback. He got the team to the NFC Championship and losing that game wasn’t his fault (although I guess you could also argue that he wasn’t able to pull a rabbit out of his hat to win the game either). The team was leading the division when he got knocked out by a concussion. So, in many ways, he “deserves” to still be the starting quarterback. And it wouldn’t surprise me if that’s the decision Harbaugh makes vs. the Rams (the truth is that the Niners shouldn’t “need” Kaep to be able to beat the Rams, despite their inability to do so previously). Can the 49ers go to and win the Super Bowl with Alex Smith? Absolutely. The same way the Ravens did with Trent Dilfer in Super Bowl XXXV. But is Alex Smith their best shot? Kaep is more athletic and can do more, both with his arm and his feet. The offense is clearly more opened up with Kaep. It seems like the offense is more potent and able to score quickly (not that there’s anything wrong with ball control and running the clock down). With Kaep the Niners can “play” football rather than having to “manage” the game on offense – and relying on the defense to not put pressure on the offense to have to score. And you just get the feeling that Kaep has more of an ability to be able to come from behind (yes, I know Alex did against the Saints in the playoffs last year). Kaep just seems more “dangerous” (and I know that can be a double-edged sword, especially when you’re talking about a QB with less experience). But if you look at the Super Bowl winners of this decade, with the exception of Dilfer and Brad Johnson (and no disrespect meant to either because a Super Bowl win is a Super Bowl win) they’re all not Alex Smith-like: Kurt Warner, Tom Brady (twice), Ben Roethilsberger (twice), Payton Manning, Eli Manning (twice), Drew Brees, and Aaron Rodgers (who I always thought the Niners should’ve drafted instead of Smith). Note that the same is pretty much true for the decade before. As good, if not great, as the 49ers defense is, I don’t think that’s enough to carry a team with Super Bowl aspirations. You also need a potent offense. Kaep gives you more of that than Smith. My bottom line: I want the 49ers to win … period … whoever Harbaugh decides to start as quarterback.

    November 28th, 2012 11:33 am

  14. Chuck

    Typo. Oops. That’s Peyton Manning, not Payton. Y’know, the guy the Niners were looking at in the off season as a possible replacement for Alex Smith. :-)

    November 28th, 2012 11:44 am

  15. overtime

    Chuck…The grading for spelling and grammar is really easy here. As long as we know who you’re writing about…Payton, Peyton, Peighton…it all works. TED

    November 28th, 2012 1:22 pm

  16. overtime

    Chuck…Thanks for sharing your thoughts…they’re really good. The idea that you would actually not intend to disrespect anybody, even professional athletes we don’t know, is refreshing. Thanks again. TED

    November 28th, 2012 1:24 pm

  17. overtime

    Matt…Ted thinks it’s fine. Ted

    November 28th, 2012 1:29 pm

  18. overtime

    Matt…I’ll try to make it clear that … I’m not suggesting Alex Smith is a good or great quarterback. I know how poorly he played earlier in his career. I’m not understanding how you can say a QB is a backup at best … when he was at QB in the NFC title game and at QB for a first-place team before he got hurt. If you can find other cases of a backup quarterback who took snaps and stayed out of the way for conference championship game teams or who went like 21-5 … I’d be easier able to believe that a team can experience the success the 49ers have with Smith playing for Harbaugh if the QB isn’t good. Fans don’t want Smith to get any credit after the abysmal start to his career. Now…he’s putting up stats that fans wouldn’t killed for 2, 3, 4 years ago and they’re being dismissed as meaningless.TED

    November 28th, 2012 1:34 pm

  19. Matt Witthaus

    I don’t dismiss them as meaningless, but I do label them misleading. And as I said above, I realize that making the claim of him being no better than a backup is absurd, in light of his lifetime numbers. I guess I should say, that in a draft that yielded two quarterbacks who became starters, if I were to assess who would have a better career as a starter, I would have to give that to Aaron Rogers. The notion that Smith would have, could have been a world beater, I just don’t think that was accurate. I feel, as a spread quarterback out of Utah, Smith was ill-suited for the Niner offense, and his growth to become so would be hard if not impossible. In the meantime the Niners believed whatever bogus info got circulated about Rogers, that the Packers chose to disregard, and the rest was history. As for Smith’s development, it WAS hard, but it was not impossible, and today Smith is a good, but not great, quarterback. His limitations in deep passing, conservative nature making decisions in where he goes with the football, and taking unwise chances with his body, have harmed him, both physically and mentally, however, and this is why he doesn’t get his job back in spite of the fact that he’s playing well, for him. I think Harbaugh and the Niner brass have made their decision on what his destiny is. And in order to run the explosive offense they wanted at the start of the season, they have to go with Kaep. It’s a hard reality, I know, and surely Smith doesn’t deserve to be ridiculed or unceremoniously shown the door. But he must take responsibility for not acting of his volition, and taking the contract that would have assured his starting job, without pressure, or overly unrealistic expectations. Although Miami, I’m sure would have come with it’s own set of concerns. I’m past feeling sorry for him. He’s a man and he needs to act in control of his own destiny. A man knows you don’t “evaluate” a player you don’t plan to sign. A man knows when something isn’t working, and in order to do what’s best for everyone, it’s time to move on. Kaep may make mistakes, but I will take that, because Smith doesn’t seem to be a viable alternative, not to me anyway. Call me crazy, if you like, (I’ve been calling this out for years, and still I get dismissed as the nutcase guy who ignores the stats) but I just want my team to win.

    November 28th, 2012 2:59 pm

  20. overtime

    Matt…The good news is that nobody calls you crazy here. The people who call one another names must lurk elsewhere. Ted

    November 28th, 2012 4:59 pm

  21. Chuck

    Matt – I will call you “crazy” because we both are. :-)

    November 29th, 2012 10:58 am

  22. overtime

    Chuck…Thanks for reading. Crazy is as crazy does … or something like that. Stay in touch. TED

    November 29th, 2012 1:14 pm

  23. Matt Witthaus

    Chuck, it’s a good kind of crazy :-) Take care

    November 29th, 2012 6:09 pm

  24. Steven Lum

    Awesome article

    January 6th, 2013 4:40 pm

  25. overtime

    Steve…Thanks for reading. I appreciate it. Ted

    January 8th, 2013 6:12 pm

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