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.