It’s a truism that the most popular player on a football team is the backup quarterback. For the 49ers, it’s now Colin Kaepernick.
Nothing new here. I remember when fans — and some writers — clamored for George Mira to replace John Brodie.
Given a chance, Mira fell flat on his face. Then it was Steve Spurrier. Ditto. Brodie played through all this nonsense and, when the Niners finally put a good cast around him, got the team to the playoffs for three straight years, once to the NFC Championship.
More recently, Cody Pickett was the darling of 49ers fans. A great athlete but mediocre quarterback, Pickett eventually found his way to the Canadian Football League, where he has played for three teams.
Fans get excited about reserve quarterbacks when they shine in the exhibition season, never factoring in the fact that they’re playing against many defenders who won’t even be on the roster in the regular season.
My media colleagues aren’t much better. There’s a lot of group-think in sports journalism. Writers talk to each other and, voila, they come up with the same story. Read one of them and you’ve read them all.
I listen to coaches I respect and I also form my own judgments. Spurrier threw five touchdown passes against Dallas when he replaced an injured Brodie, but I could see his fatal flaw: His arm was too weak to throw the deep sideline pass. I wrote that defenses would soon catch up to him. Spurrier didn’t talk to me for years — because I was right.
When the 49ers traded for Steve Young, most writers were certain he’d never make it as an NFL quarterback. Bill Walsh, who knew quarterbacks better than anybody, was certain he could, and he talked owner Eddie DeBartolo into throwing $1 million into the deal with Tampa Bay. I went with Walsh’s judgment. You know how that played out.
And no, I don’t think Alex Smith is the second coming of Steve Young, but Jim Harbaugh believes in him, and that’s good enough for me. Harbaugh knows quarterbacks. He played the position in the NFL for 15 years, coached quarterbacks for two years with the Raiders and developed Josh Johnson into an NFL quarterback in his first head coaching job at the University of San Diego.
My media colleagues don’t like Smith, and they’re picking at Harbaugh trying to get him to say he might go to Kaepernick. I was on a conference call with Harbaugh on Saturday and he was being his usual noncommittal self, saying Smith and Kaepernick would compete in training camp. Despite several questions, he wouldn’t go beyond that.
But when I picked up the Sunday paper, I read that there will be serious competition for No. 1. Not a chance.
Kaepernick is very talented, a good athlete with a cannon arm, but he’s learning a totally different system. It would be suicidal to start him, and Harbaugh knows that.
Nor will any veteran quarterback the Niners may bring in, such as Daunte Culpepper, be anything but insurance in case Smith is injured.
So, 49ers fans, like it or not, you’re going to see Alex Smith at quarterback this fall.
Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on www.GlennDickey.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.