We take a look at the 49ers quarterback controversy and what to make of Colin Kaepernick and Alex Smith moving forward from the 49ers Week 12 win over the New Orleans Saints.
The San Francisco 49ers put together a solid win over the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, in a game that saw Colin Kaepernick have some ups and downs. The 49ers defense put together a whale of an effort to secure the victory, which has led to some people taking issue with praise for Colin Kaepernick's effort. I've seen in the comments that some people view it wildly hypocritical for people to laud Kaepernick's effort, stating that if Alex Smith put up a similar line, there would be battles to the death over it.
I put together some video last night to discuss my thoughts on the situation, and simply put, I don't think it's as simple as that. I think there is a broader context that needs to be considered in assessing this situation. The most basic context is that these last two games came in Colin Kaepernick's first two starts in the NFL. I am not here to compare Kaepernick's first two starts with Smith's first two starts. Kaepernick is surrounded by arguably the deepest roster in the NFL. In 2005, Smith was surrounded by arguably the worst roster in the NFL.
We can't put 2012 Colin Kaepernick in the position of 2005 Alex Smith, just as we can't put 2005 Alex Smith in the position of 2012 Colin Kaepernick. However, that doesn't mean we can ignore the fact that Kaepernick has looked great in one start and solid in a second start in his first opportunity to start. Right off the bat, I would think that changes that argument even if just a little bit.
However, more importantly than the context of a career timeline, I do believe we saw Colin Kaepernick make certain plays that Alex Smith either does not make at all, or makes in very rare instances. While I do think people underestimate Alex Smith's athleticism and maneuverability, I also think there were several instances where Alex Smith takes the sack last night. In the context of the conservative offense that is fine, but Colin Kaepernick showed he can take this offense to another level. The 49ers have shown upside with Alex Smith, but that upside lacked consistency. It would be insane to declare Colin Kaepernick the next great quarterback. However, that doesn't mean we can't see the potential explosive nature of the 49ers offense as directed by Kaepernick.
So what does this mean going forward?
Coach Harbaugh spoke with the media following the game and when asked about the QB position, he said he would address it at a later date. He said he would look at the game and make the best decision. Pick your cliche and it was out there.
Alex Smith spoke with the media and while he did express some frustration, he also was a team player. He pointed out that it was a tough situation. NFL Network caught part of his interview and he said that yes he wanted to be starting, but he also said the important thing was the team getting the win.
As I said in the video, I feel that if Colin Kaepernick is not getting all the first team snaps, Coach Harbaugh is doing a disservice to the team. I understand he wants to maintain some semblance of an edge over the opponent and keep them guessing, but does anybody actually think Alex Smith is going to start in Week 13? Whatever your thoughts on Alex Smith, Colin Kaepernick has had an opportunity and he has run with it.
Given the nature of how Alex Smith may very well have lost his job, there is plenty of arguments to be made that this situation has been unfair to Smith. Unfortunately, life isn't fair. My primary concerns at this point are two-fold (even if my concerns are of no concern to Jim Harbaugh):
1. Get Colin Kaepernick fully prepared for the Rams
2. Keeping the team focused on the task at hand and mending any potential rifts that might have developed with the handling of the 49ers QB situation.
As to that second point, In the second quarter, Pam Oliver mentioned how she had spoken with Joe Staley and asked him about the situation. She reported that Staley told her, "Alex knows where I stand." She also mentioned that he had an uncomfortable look while stating this. While some will question her interpretation of body language, it should not be surprising that there would be some awkward situations with some of the veterans on the team. I suppose it's fitting that this happened right near Thanksgiving. That really is the time when families get together and things get awkward.
At this point, if Kaepernick remains the starter the rest of the season, I would imagine Alex Smith will remain a "good soldier" for now. After the season will be a different question entirely. The team can maintain control over him for two more seasons, but they also have the power to release him prior to April 1 each of the next two offseasons.
When the offseason hits, if Kaepernick has started the rest of the way, it would not surprise me to see Alex Smith demand a trade or his release. The team has control of Smith's contract, but they will not have complete control of the situation. I don't think Smith will act like a petulant five year old, but I do think he'll make his displeasure known. Troy Aikman spoke with him earlier in the week about how he would feel if he was cleared and did not start on Sunday, and Smith indicated he would be "pretty ticked."
I have to think it would take a heck of a sell job from Jim Harbaugh this offseason to convince Alex Smith to stick around if he has lost his job. And that's assuming the 49ers want to keep him around. Alex Smith's contract features a $1 million of guaranteed money. Smith is due a $7.5 million base salary if he is on the roster April 1. If they cut him before then they owe the $1 million. The cap hit in 2013 in that case would be the $1 million, plus $2 million in pro-rated bonus money from 2012. That saved money could be key in extending guys like Dashon Goldson and NaVorro Bowman if the 49ers so choose.
While I would prefer to enjoy simply living in the moment of Colin Kaepernick's early success, there are too many bigger implications to ignore it. I don't know if Jim Harbaugh will clear this situation up anytime soon. For now, we just have to wait and see how that plays out. In reality, all that matters is having the players on the same page. Letting the media and fans know what's what is not really even on the radar. The key will be keeping the team on track and focused moving forward. That is all that matters.