SAN FRANCISCO -- It's not exactly Joe Montana vs. Steve Young, but it is a legitimate, bonafide, honest-to-goodness quarterback controversy we've got going in San Francisco -- and not just because of what backup Colin Kaepernick did to Chicago Monday night but because of what his head coach said afterward.
And what Jim Harbaugh said after the 49ers' 32-7 hammering of Chicago was that he wasn't sure who would play next -- Alex Smith or Kaepernick -- and while that may not seem like much, it's plenty. Because all he had to say was that when Smith is cleared by physicians he's his starter.
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Only he didn't, and, from where I sit, that's a mistake -- creating an unnecessary distraction for a team that doesn't need it.
Pure and simple, Alex Smith should be San Francisco's starter. He won the job in training camp, and he stayed the starter until he got hurt last weekend. Unlike Kaepernick, he didn't win a game; he won a season for the 49ers. In fact, last time I checked it was Smith, not Kaepernick, who helped put the 49ers in the 2011 conference championship game and while they didn't win it don't blame Smith. Blame punt returner Kyle Williams. It was his two flubs that kept the 49ers from advancing to the Super Bowl.
OK, so Smith wasn't exactly scintillating against the Giants. Tell me a quarterback in last year's playoffs who was. Aaron Rodgers? Nope. Tom Brady? Uh-uh. Matt Ryan? He didn't score a point on them. Smith at least put up 17, or as many as Brady in Super Bowl XLVI.
But that was then, and this is now ... and now Alex Smith has San Francisco on top of the NFC West again. He didn't play Monday because he suffered a concussion against St. Louis, and sitting him was the right decision. What isn't is to sacrifice his starting job to a promising young backup who, for one evening, at least, demonstrated to the 49ers that he can be special.
Yet after Kaepernick sliced, diced and spliced the Bears, Harbaugh hedged when asked who starts next weekend vs. New Orleans.
"We'll see," he said. "I usually tend to go with the guy who's got the hot hand. [And] we've got two quarterbacks who've got a hot hand. I thought Colin did a great job ... it was really exemplary. I thought he really acquitted himself great, and I was proud of that."
He should be. Kaepernick was sensational in his first pro start. He hit eight of his first nine throws. He threw two touchdown passes. He returned tight end Vernon Davis to the game plan, with Davis later saying, "I felt like somebody took the handcuffs off me." He showed rare poise, not committing a turnover against a defense that leads the league in that department. And he scored so highly in his pre-snap reads that Harbaugh later said he remembered Kaepernick missing only one call, and "that's an A-plus operation."
Terrific but it was one game, people. And, as Kaepernick so eloquently put it, "I don't think one game can be called a hot hand."
Neither do I. But I don't make those decisions, and neither does Kaepernick. Harbaugh does, and it would be just like him to defy conventional wisdom to stick with the quarterback he coveted so highly he moved up in the second round of last year's draft to choose him.
The idea then was that Kaepernick would become the team's starter, perhaps as early as his rookie season, but then you saw what happened. And what happened was that Smith led the 49ers to the playoffs for the first time since 2002.
Now, fast forward to this season, and look what you have. Smith not only is the league's third-rated quarterback (104.1); he leads the league in completion percentage (70.0) and is second in yards per attempt (7.98). Oh, yeah, one other thing: He has the 49ers on top of the division again. So what, exactly, did he do to earn a demotion?
He got hurt, that's what.
That doesn't mean he sits down this weekend. It just means he could, and, if he's cleared by physicians, I don't get it. I understand the 49ers like what they have in Kaepernick, but patience, people. Alex Smith demonstrated he can beat New Orleans in the playoffs. Colin Kaepernick demonstrated he can win his first start.
There's a big difference.
I guess what I'm saying is that Harbaugh missed a chance to back the guy who helped restore order in the Bay Area, and my guess is that he did it for a reason: Namely, to send a message to his team that we can win with either of these guys. Smith took us to the playoffs; Kaepernick just destroyed one of the best defenses out there. It really doesn't matter who quarterbacks us. We're going to win.
And maybe they will. But I stick with the guy who proved he can win more than one game. And that's Alex Smith. If he should struggle ... if, say, he has another one of those hiccups like that 26-3 loss to the Giants last month ... if the 49ers are locked in one of those games where their offense shifts into neutral, as it did in Minnesota in late September ... well, then, Colin Kaepernick just gave San Francisco, Harbaugh and, yes, even Alex Smith plenty to think about.
"I wanted to come out and show what I was capable of and show I can be a starter," said Kaepernick. "And that's what I've been trying to do since I've been here."
Alex Smith has been trying to do that, too. And he succeeded. So stay with him until he proves he can't do the job. Don't start playing games with your quarterbacks in the middle of November. Stick with a winner and ride him to the finish.
No question, Kaepernick was marvelous, and he might turn out to be the quarterback Harbaugh envisioned when he drafted him. He can run. He can throw. And he was so accurate that Davis said one of his passes reminded him of "one of those balls you see Tom Brady throw." In short, he's "a playmaker," as Davis put it, and a playmaker with a bright future.
But that future is not now.