Jim Harbaugh is a man of many labels. Genius, egomaniac and master motivator are just a few of the tags he’s picked up in his brief NFL coaching career. Here’s another one if the 49ers do make a Super Bowl run this month: psychic.
At the risk of being called Mitt Romney (by Democrats) or John Kerry (by Republicans), I’m conceding that Colin Kaepernick is the right quarterback for the 49ers heading into the 2013 playoffs. But this isn’t a flip-flop. It’s the reality that the 49ers are a different team without Justin Smith.
The case for Alex Smith always hinged on the premise that the 49ers possessed the NFL’s best defense. Last season, the 49ers finished 26th in total offense, but were an overtime fumble away from playing in the Super Bowl. How?
They surrendered the NFL’s fewest rushing yards (77.2) and the second-fewest points per game (14.2) while leading in turnover margin (plus-28) and tying a league record for fewest turnovers in a season (10).
Smith was the right guy for the job because he proved to be a near-perfect game manager with Harbaugh on the headset. If you look at the teams that have won Super Bowls with a defense-first approach, many had quarterbacks — Jim McMahon, Phil Simms, Jeff Hostetler, Trent Dilfer, Brad Johnson — that were better at protecting the football than producing big plays.
But Smith was never the ideal quarterback for Harbaugh. He’s a check-down passer, which is why he’s so efficient, but he doesn’t stretch the defense the way Andrew Luck did at Stanford. Harbaugh likes to stack up his line with two tight ends and run the ball in a variety of ways to keep defenses on their toes. As the linebackers cheat up, he gashes them by sending those tight ends downfield for big gains. But Smith likes to make the safe choice and throw underneath, undermining Harbaugh’s game plan.
Still, with that defense and ground attack, Smith’s ability to limit mistakes proved valuable, which is why I thought the 49ers should have let him run the course this season. Learning and improvement require experience, whether you’re the president of the United States, a sports columnist or a quarterback. Why would you suffer through growing pains when the eight-year veteran has already led you to within a score of a Super Bowl appearance?
But that argument needs to be mulched in the garbage disposal now that the defense is looking vulnerable in Justin Smith’s absence. The road to the Super Bowl can no longer run through defense and game management. With the Green Bay Packers likely coming to town next week, the 49ers will need to win a shootout, and Kaepernick is better suited for that style of game.
Sure, The Cowboy promises he’ll be back, but doctors say he needs a minimum of 12 weeks to be game ready. Even if Justin Smith takes the field, the 49ers can’t expect him to rope and ride the way he usually does with a torn left triceps.
Maybe Harbaugh is football’s Nostradamus, or perhaps things just work out sometimes. Either way, the right guy is under center heading into the playoffs.