By now everyone knows the story of Alex Smith losing his job as starting Quarterback to Colin Kaepernick. It was a controversial decision, but after Kaepernick led the team to the Super Bowl behind some truly dazzling performances, most of us would agree Jim Harbaugh made the correct decision. There are, however, a few who still believe Smith is the better QB. This is a particularly common belief in my home state of Utah, where Smith remains very popular, as he played locally at the University of Utah (along side such players as Eric Weddle and Chris Kemoeatu).
Let me start by stating I am a big fan of Alex Smith. When he played here in Utah, he led the Utes to their first ever 12-0 season and a win in the Fiesta Bowl. I remember being excited that my favorite team, the San Francisco 49ers, were drafting him with the first overall pick in the 2005 NFL draft. I knew he didn't have the talent level of Peyton Manning or Tom Brady, but hoped he could develop into a Pro Bowl caliber quarterback in the NFL. He struggled mightily for many years, as the coaching carousel of the 49ers saw Smith go through a new offensive coordinator every year and repeated losing seasons under head coaches Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary. Through it all, Smith remained tough, always coming back to give it another shot, another attempt to redeem his career. I was so excited when Jim Harbaugh took over, hoping that a former Pro Bowl quarterback could finally help get Alex Smith back on track.
Smith has been through so much in his time with the 49ers, and his performance over the last couple years has been incredible. To see him transform from a laughing stock to one of the most accurate passers in the league is one of the great turnaround stories of the NFL. When he lost the starting job after an injury, many questioned Harbaugh's thinking - how do you bench a guy that has won 20 games in his last 27 starts and leads the league in completion percentage? That is where the problem lies - Smith did nothing to lose his job, and was in fact playing very well. Many people felt like he was done wrong, and the argument certainly can be made. However, the decision wasn't about screwing over Alex Smith, it was about going with the best quarterback, and as I'm about to demonstrate, Colin Kaepernick is clearly the better quarterback, maybe even by a long shot.
Supporters of Smith will point to his completion percentage, quarterback rating, the team's record over the last 2 years and the fact that he almost got the team to Super Bowl XLVI. They'll note that Kaepernick is not as accurate and depends more on his legs. They'll state that Smith probably could have gotten the 49ers to the Super Bowl this year as well. However, this is simply not true. As much as the 49ers are known for their defense, they struggled with injuries and fatigue late in the season. It was not defense, but rather a more explosive offense that led the 49ers to Super Bowl XLVII. The reality is that Kaepernick can beat teams not only with his legs, but also with his arm. A look at the numbers will put things into greater perspective.
During the regular season, both quarterbacks conveniently had the exact same number of passing attempts with 218. Smith was more accurate, completing 153 passes (70%) to Kaepernick's 136 (62%). However, Kaepernick had more yards (1814 to 1737), fewer interceptions (3 vs 5) and took fewer sacks (16 vs 24). Smith had more passing touchdowns (13 to 10), but Kaepernick also had 5 rushing TDs, making him responsible for more touchdowns overall.
Scoring in Kaepernick's starts was much higher than those of Alex Smith as well. In Smith's first 8 starts of the season (we won't penalize him for the Rams game where he went out with injury in the second quarter), the 49ers averaged 23.6 points per game. In Kaepernick's 10 starts (including playoffs), the 49ers averaged 28.8 ppg, a difference of more than 5 points per game.
Games where the team scored 30 points or more are also telling. With Smith as the starter, the 49ers accomplished this 3 times. In one of those games (a 34-0 win over the Jets), it was actually Kaepernick who scored the first touchdown and Carlos Rogers also chipped in with a fumble recovery for a TD. With Kaepernick starting, the 49ers reached the 30-point mark 5 times, though defensive TDs by Ahmad Brooks and Donte Whitner vs. the Saints are worth mentioning as well.
The final set of stats will focus on things that Kaepernick has done that Alex Smith has not. Including the playoffs, the 49ers scored 40 points or more twice with Kaepernick as starter (vs. Patriots & Packers). Alex Smith has never led a team to 40+ points twice in a season and in fact has only led a team to 40 points or more 3 times in his ENTIRE career. Smith has also never thrown 4 TDs in a single game, a feat Kaepernick accomplished in just his 5th career start and under tough circumstances - a cold, wet December game at the New England Patriots.
Finally, we'll mention the running game a bit. No one denies Kaepernick is a better runner, but it is worth mentioning that his 5 regular season rushing TDs are more than Smith has in his entire career (4). He also has 3 rushing TDs in the playoffs, where Smith has only 1 in his career (the memorable one against the Saints last year).
I like Alex Smith and if he is indeed traded or released, it will be sad to see him go. Through all the ups and downs, he always remained classy, even when the starting job was given to someone else. I hope he finds success elsewhere, but it is obvious Colin Kaepernick is the 49ers' quarterback of the future. The truly scary part is, he is just getting started.