This Thanksgiving morning the San Francisco 49ers reiterated that they are still undecided on who will be their starting quarterback come Sunday when they take on the New Orleans Saints. After an injury due to a concussion that kept him out of last week’s game against the Chicago Bears, starting quarterback Alex Smith just may lose his job to rising star Colin Kaepernick, who played exceptional in the dismantling of the Bears defense. While the 49ers are not new to quarterback controversy, the decision, no matter whom they start, will be sure to draw an immense amount of criticism. There are undoubtedly pros and cons to the decision the 49ers quarterback controversy.
Not surprisingly, 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh has been very coy with the media regarding the situation, never divulging too much information. The only certainty that he has related to is that Kaepernick will be taking the first string snaps in practice this week. But that may also only be because Smith is still going through non-contact practice until he is medically cleared to play. Here’s what the sports nation knows about Harbaugh, he is as crafty as they come. And he can be bold to a fault sometimes. He just may be withholding information from the media with the intentions of keeping the Saints in the dark about the 49ers game plan. A subtle tactic that just may get the 49ers a slight advantage on Sunday. But still, he has to make a decision soon, and a "hot hand" may not be enough to make a logical choice.
First of all you have to look at what each quarterback brings to the table, each of them has strengths and weaknesses that factor into the decision. For Smith, there is still concern over his health, if he is still going through practice in a non-contact capacity, then he is obviously not yet cleared to play. But that may change in the next couple of days.
More than anything, you have to look at his track record under Harbaugh as coach. In his two years as quarterback for Harbaugh, Smith has 19 wins against his five losses and a tie. He is also one and one in the playoffs, and was painstakingly close to going to the Super Bowl. That alone is enough for many to argue his case for the starter role. He has led a team deep into the playoffs, he has played on a grand stage against the leagues best. Just thing of last year’s playoff shootout against Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints, Smith was huge in that game. He came up big when it mattered the most; he played up to the moment.
This year Smith has improved remarkably, his passing percentage is up from last year, his average yards per pass is up from last year, and his overall quarterback rating is up from last year. Through nine games as a starter this year, he is only behind Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers in total quarterback rating. Smith has made himself one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the league this year. He doesn’t throw for a lot of yards, but with him at the helm the 49ers utilize running back Frank Gore to his advantage in the offensive scheme. Frank Gore is the engine that drives this team, it’s not up to Smith to fuel the offense.
The only glaring drawback to Smith over Kaepernick at this point is he doesn’t have a big arm like Kaepernick and he doesn’t move as well as Kaepernick. But one must keep in mind that Smith is still a very athletic person, it’s not like he can’t run. He just chooses to do so on a limited basis.
One final note on Smith, he has been in a quarterback controversy every year since he entered the league, for the exception of last year. He has battled the stigma of not being a starting quarterback in this league for a long time now. He has been entrenched in numerous head coaches and offensive coordinators. Only last year when Harbaugh took over, had Smith felt the pressure ease off of him and his talent limits. A benching now, when he has had the best year of his career, just might break him. It could potentially ruin his confidence. After what he has been through, it would be a travesty to see it end so abruptly, to no fault of his own.
Conversely, there is a definite upside to starting Kaepernick. First of all, he is ridiculously athletic; he has the ability to garner yards that are unavailable to Smith. His ability to run the ball keeps at least one defender across the line from assisting others in their defensive scheme. Kaepernick is also a breath of fresh air for the 49ers; he brings the unexpected to the table. No longer can a defense sit back and look for a short passing routes to defend against. The 49ers were predictable in their offense with Smith under center, they didn’t try to hide what they intended on doing. With Kaepernick, they are no longer a predictable team, they have a different offensive look, and can now force defenses to second-guess their strategy.
There is also his arm strength; his ability to throw the ball deep just may be a window of opportunity that the 49ers have not really explored this year. It would most certainly aid in the production that wide receivers Randy Moss and Mario Manningham provide. It will also bring back Vernon Davis into the game plan once again. There has been so much focus on Davis by defenses this year his production is down. But with a running quarterback that can go deep, there’s not going to be a lot of double teams on Davis.
The cons for Kaepernick starting over Smith are also compelling. First of all, he played great in the Bears game, but remember it’s only one game. It’s hardly a lifetime achievement. There have been a lot of one hit wonders in sports, those that play great for a moment in time, and never really reach that pinnacle again. Think about the back up quarterback in Seattle right now Matt Flynn. Last year he was with the Green Bay Packers, he started one game for them, the very last game of the season when they sat Aaron Rodgers to keep him from being injured. That game Flynn threw for 480 yards and six touchdowns, a remarkable achievement for any quarterback. His contract was up at the end of the year, and was a hot commodity in the free agent market at the start of this year. Picked up by the Seahawks, he lost his job to a rookie in the preseason. He has not seen the field since. And that is just one of many, so one game absolutely does not warrant a parade of over confidence in a player.
The other argument that may come about is that starting Kaepernick does change the offensive philosophy for the 49ers. His ability to run takes away from the touches that Frank Gore gets each night. The changing of the guard will be moving the team away from what has worked for them so well in the past two years. An offense reliant on Gore got them to the NFC Championship game last year and has propelled them to only two losses this year. It may be a mistake to take the ball out of Gore’s hands; a mistake that the 49ers may only realize until it’s too late.
In the end, all 49ers fans want is a winning football team. One that has character and poise, that can get us to the Super Bowl. It’s not a terrible problem to have, two very talented and capable quarterbacks fighting for a chance to play. So this Thanksgiving, 49ers fans are thankful for the efforts that these two men put forth. We are thankful to have a very competent and professional organization that we root for. And we are thankful to all that provide us the quality of life we enjoy.
From all of us here at 49ers101.com, Happy Thanksgiving.
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