There’s always a risk involved with handing the reins to an inexperienced player, no matter how talented that player is. You can’t predict how they’ll do, even if they appear to be ready for the role. But when you hand the reins to an inexperienced player in an important stretch of the season, that gamble is heightened even more.
But just like someone can take a gamble and hit the jackpot online, Jim Harbaugh looks to have hit the jackpot with his gamble on taking the reins from veteran and former #1 draft pick Alex Smith and handing them to second-year signal-caller Colin Kaepernick.
The change was initially a forced one, as Smith went down with a concussion in the first half of a Week 10 showdown against the rival Rams. At that point, the 49ers were 6-2 and in first place in the NFC West, and Smith, who was 7 of 8 for 72 yards and a touchdown vs. the Rams before he went down, was one of the league leaders in passer rating and on pace to top the career highs in passing yards and touchdowns that he had set in 2011, when he led the 49ers to the cusp of a Super Bowl berth. In these situations, the starter usually retains his place when he’s healthy again, even if the backup plays very well.
In this situation, Kaepernick did indeed play well, so well that Harbaugh elected to proceed with him as the starter even when Smith was cleared to play before the following week’s game against the Bears. And if you’ve been tuning in to the NFL on even a semi-regular basis over the last couple of months, you’ll see that Kaepernick hasn’t done anything to relinquish that spot, and when the 49ers meet the Ravens in Sunday’s Super Bowl, it’s all but a certainty that the second-year pro will be running the show.
Since Kaepernick took over, Harbaugh has offered few definitive comments publicly in regards to the quarterback situation, but it’s pretty clear who the guy is for Sunday and going forward. Smith is seeking a release before the free agency period starts, and there’s really not much sense in returning to the 49ers, even if the door was somehow open for him to compete for the starting role.
Smith took some time to develop, but he overcame injuries, struggles, coaching changes, and multiple previous quarterback controversies to become a reliable starting quarterback. In Harbaugh’s two seasons as head coach, Smith’s 19-5-1 as the starter, and in that time period, he’s had few truly bad games. His maturation, relative youth (he’ll only be 29 in May), and success over the last couple of seasons means some decent offers should come his way, and he has a good chance to be a starter somewhere next season, even if it’s as a one-year guy.
However, he hasn’t had many truly great games either. With a highly productive rushing attack and a highly destructive defense, he wasn’t required to be Joe Montana or Steve Young (or even Jeff Garcia, when he was at his best with the 49ers), but he’s more game manager than playmaker.
On the other hand, Kaepernick is a playmaker, and that only adds to the potential of what the 49ers can do. Not only can he get it done through the air, but he can break off chunks of yardage on the ground with regularity and can take it to the house on any play. Smith is certainly no slouch with his feet, but Kaepernick is far, far superior in that area.
There’s no telling how he’ll fare on Sunday, and there’s no telling how he’ll fare going forward as the man in San Fran. But he’s more than justified Harbaugh’s gamble to this point, and with bags of talent, potential, and confidence in his pocket, there’s no reason to think that he won’t continue to do so.