Monday, November 26, 2012

The Great Quarterback Controversy

For me, the best litmus test as to whether a sports story has permeated the collective consciousness of the general public is when my wife Alice knows about it.  Being the quintessential non-sports fan, if she is aware of the story, and the principals involved, then it's a BIG story.  Needless to say, she's aware of this one.  She knows who Alex Smith is, and she knows who Colin Kaepernick is, and I haven't said a word to her about The Great Quarterback Controversy.

Jim Harbaugh doesn't like the media's, and even the general public's preoccupation with this story, but he has to be pleased with one part of it.  The 49ers are the only legitimate Super Bowl contender with two solid quarterbacks.  If you don't believe me, check out who the backup quarterbacks are in Chicago, Green Bay, New York (Giants), New England, Baltimore and Denver.  It's a cast of relative unknowns with little NFL experience.  So, Harbaugh is very fortunate that if one of his two quarterbacks gets injured, the team will hardly lose a beat with the other behind center.  None of the other contenders can come close to making such a claim.

My esteemed colleague Stan Bunger blogged on this very subject earlier today, as I knew he would, after we debated the subject in a very spirited fashion during our 25-minute drive into San Francisco this morning.  It would have made a fabulous podcast.  Too bad we weren't recording.  Basically, Stan thinks it's unconscionable that Alex Smith might be losing his starting job while still recovering from the concussion he suffered two weeks ago yesterday against the Rams.  Stan subscribes to the old-school belief that no starter in any sport should lose his job while physically unable to play.  I'm not knocking that axiom because it's old-school.  Quite the contrary.  I like a lot of things considered old-school:  Respect for one's elders, respect for one's fellow man (and woman), baseball without the DH, basketball when three steps to the basket was considered traveling, and football with individuals who actually played both offense and defense.

But this particular axiom--that one should never lose a starting job in sports when one is injured--is absurd.  John Madden even told us on KCBS this morning that it's pure nonsense.  More specifically, John said it flies in the face of what every coach in the NFL knows to be true, that it's his job to put his very best players on the field who will give his team its very best chance at winning.  Nothing else matters, nor should it.  Stan even used me as an example, in trying to further his argument.  He asked how I'd feel if I were on the DL, so-to-speak, and someone else filled in while I was on the mend, only to have KCBS become enamored with my replacement to the point of hiring him/her full time to replace me. I said if the station decided the other guy was better, then the station would have the right to make the change.

If Alex Smith is healthy, and if Jim Harbaugh thinks he gives the 49ers their best chance at beating the Rams in St. Louis Sunday, then Smith will start.  But I am willing to bet money that this won't happen.  I am willing to bet money that Colin Kaepernick will start, because I am virtually certain that Harbaugh sees, in part at least, what I and so many others see (a list that includes former quarterbacks and highly-respected TV football analysts Steve Young, Jon Gruden and Ron Jaworski), that Kaepernick is a star-in-the-making right now; that Kaepernick has a fabulous arm and can throw deep and throw deep with accuracy (which Smith can't), and that Kaepernick is extremely mobile and can supplement his great arm with the ability to run, to run away from pursuit and to run for yardage (which Smith can't, with any consistency).  Hell, that's what John Madden thinks!

Don't get me wrong.  I'm not saying Alex Smith is not a good quarterback.  The numbers don't lie.  He's ranked fifth in the NFL in quarterback rating, and is tops in completion percentage, at 70%.  He led the 49ers to a 13-3 season a year ago, and if not for a couple of fumbled kicks, the Niners probably would have been in the Super Bowl.  And one impressive stat that even Stan didn't mention--Smith has completed 25-of-27 passes over his last two starts.  Not only that, but Alex Smith is one tough dude, one smart guy, and is a great teammate.  So what's not to love?

He doesn't throw deep, he doesn't run, and he has difficulty avoiding the rush.  Kaepernick does all of those things, and does them damn well.  He's completed 10 passes of 20+ yards in his two starts.  Smith has completed 22 passes of 20+ yards in nine starts.  Kaepernick has run for more than 200 yards this season, mostly as a backup, averaging seven yards a carry.  In his two NFL starts, he's been sacked only once.  In Smith's nine starts, he's been sacked 24 times.  And Kaepernick is also tough, smart and a great teammate.

But I don't want to get bogged down in statistics any more than I already am.  Simply put, Kaepernick has a higher ceiling than Smith, and this is something that has become clear in the 49ers locker room and on the field.  The players know.  The receivers clearly know.  So does the offensive line.  Listen to what they said after the last two games, and listen to how they said it.  If Harbaugh is thinking of using him at all in the playoffs, then the more experience he gets between now and then, the better.  I think Harbaugh is genuinely thrilled about the added dimension that Kaepernick brings to his offense, and believes that Kaepernick might be what the offense needs to bolster the team's chances of not just getting to the Super Bowl, but winning it.

Stan and I both know that Madden doesn't follow college football nearly as closely as he does the NFL, but John was a big fan of Kaepernick's when he starred at the University of Nevada, and was openly surprised that Kaepernick was not more highly regarded as a top NFL prospect.  Harbaugh felt much the same, which is why he engineered a draft-day trade last year to acquire Kaepernick, sending three draft picks to the Denver Broncos in exchange for the 36th pick.  Kaepernick is Harbaugh's guy, and Trent Baalke's, too.  Smith isn't.  Smith was here long before those two came on board.  That means something.  So does the fact that if the 49ers want to keep Smith next year, they'll have to pay him $8.5 million.  Maybe they're beginning to believe that Kaepernick will be their starting quarterback next season.

But the biggest factor of all is this:  Which quarterback gives the 49ers the best chance to win right now?  The guy with the experience, or the guy with the stronger arm and the ability to run?  The decision should have nothing to do with whether one of them is injured.  Sports is full of cases where a starter lost his job while rehabbing an injury.  Lou Gehrig and Wally Pipp is merely the most famous example, but there are countless others.  And with good reason.  Colin Kaepernick and Alex Smith figures to be the latest.

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