The backup quarterback always gets the most love from fans and it’s Colin Kaepernick’s turn now. But the way 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh has handled this situation will come back to bite him.
Though many fans had been slow to accept Alex Smith, he led the team to a 13-3 record last season and then took the Niners on two long scoring drives in the final 4:02 to beat New Orleans in the first playoff game. This year, he was again playing at a very high level, with an 18-of-19 performance against Arizona in his last full game. Though his vision was already blurry, he stayed in the game against the St. Louis Rams and threw a touchdown pass before he had to come out.
Smith would have been the starter against the Chicago Bears if he’d been able to pass the concussion tests. He couldn’t, so Kaepernick played and had a very good game.
But that was just one game. Smith should have started against the Saints in New Orleans, but Harbaugh went back to Kaepernick. That sent a message, not only to Smith but to the whole team: This guy can’t be trusted.
Kaepernick had a decent game in New Orleans, but the defense bailed him out with two touchdowns of its own. He threw one panicky interception and would have had another except that Randy Moss wrestled a Saints defensive back down in the end zone to prevent him from making the catch. Moss got a penalty, but that was better than an interception.
The game Kaepernick had against New Orleans is much more likely what we’ll see from him than the Chicago game when the Bears’ defense was obviously geared to stop the run and didn’t expect a wide open passing game.
Kaepernick will make some sensational plays, but he will also throw more interceptions than Smith, who has the 49ers’ record for most consecutive passes without an interception, breaking the mark set by Steve Young.
The 49ers are still a team that wins primarily because it has a dominant defense. The defense didn’t show up for the first game against the Rams, probably figuring it was up against a soft touch. That showing embarrassed the defense and it has been overwhelming since then. The defense took the Bears out of the game by halftime and was even more impressive against the Saints, not only with the two interceptions, but by putting the kind of pressure on Drew Brees that he almost never sees. The 49ers’ defensive front just collapsed the Saints offensive line and set the tone of the game.
I expect that unit to do the same against the Rams in St. Louis on Sunday.
Smith’s game is much better suited to Harbaugh’s system than Kaerpenick’s because Smith is much more careful where he throws the ball, not just winging it downfield. He is not Joe Montana but his style is similar. Bill Walsh emphasized a high-completion percentage and low interception rate. The Harbaugh-Greg Roman offense, though different in many ways, has a similar aim.
Yet, Harbaugh was apparently as titillated as fans by Kaepernick’s strong arm, so he threw Smith under the bus. He’ll regret that.
Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on www.GlennDickey.com. Email him at email@example.com.