This is NOT a dig on Alex smith. I think he is a great athlete, even better person, and I am proud to call him a 49er. This is simply about the reality of the NFL as it unfolded this season, and what it means for the NFL’s future and his place in it.
Phase 1: Smith got benched after an injury and one of the highest completion percentages ever posted by a quarterback. When we look at "efficiency," he was doing some great things. Right after his benching, there was a decent chance Kaepernick would perform worse than Smith had, since Smith was putting together a pretty good season—good enough to put him in the top third of both QB rating and Total QBR. Further, he still looked like he was getting better at what he was doing. How much better could he be if he continued to improve over the next few years? Everybody knew that once Harbaugh "risked" switching to Kaepernick, there was no going back. There were teams throughout the league thinking "he’d certainly make our team better." To some degree, they were right. They knew Alex was one generation removed. He was an Aikman, though not as accomplished. Not "high-flying" like the new era of quarterbacks such as Brady, Brees, the Mannings, or Rodgers, but those old teams still could win if they had all the other pieces in place, right?
Phase 2: Wow, Kaepernick is a good quarterback. Ok, that was a possibility. Two good quarterbacks on the same team is not unheard of, and only one can start. Kaepernick is here to stay because he is a good quarterback. The odd-man-out is Smith, and that is fine. Other teams will see that two good QB’s can’t coexist, and therefor Smith needs to leave, and they might be able to get an upgrade at QB.
Phase 3: What just happened. Washington and Seattle were not very good teams last year, and now they are in the playoffs. The 49er’s look way better, all-around. Wilson, RG3, and Kaepernick (2 Rookies and sophomore) went a combined 7-2 against the "new era high-flying QB’s" in the regular season (And after last night, 1 and 0 in the playoffs). Everybody watching the game last night thought the same thing. The "new era of the elite high-flying QB’s is already ending." If you can’t run the option read well, then you aren’t really an option. Don’t get me wrong, players like Rogers and Brees will play out their careers with some success, but when teams are looking at what direction they need to go in to get competitive with the current elites? They certainly won’t say to themselves "We need to go back two eras. We need to go back before this new breed of multi-dimensional threat QB’s, back past the ended era of the "high-flyers," to the slow and dependable era. All QB switches are a risk, and most of them turn out badly. But any GM watching the game last night and putting it in context with the rest of the NFL season, who may at one point thought "Smith might be a good option," is thinking an unproven, multi-dimensional quarterback is a risk with much better potential return—just like Harbaugh.
Reality: There were hints of this. We, like the coaches and GMs, tried to deny it for nearly a decade. "College spread is not pro….blah blah blah. Can this quarterback be any good if we teach him to take snaps under center and always stay in the pocket?" Ask yourself this: What if instead of looking at Michael Vick as somebody they needed to "tame" and mold to the NFL, some smart GM said traditional is often proven flawed? Cam Newton has gotten worse as the Panther’s try hard to make him old-school. I guarantee you 3 things: 1) Teams in need of QB’s are going to take the risk in favor of the "new-new-era," and not look backward toward player’s like Smith. Smith will be nothing more than "insurance," a hedge bet. Some team is going to pick up Vick and see if it is too late to undo everything he has been taught since coming to the NFL—and indeed it may be too late. And the Panther’s are going to apologize to Newton and say, "let’s do it your way."