By Steve Silverman
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Happy Thanksgiving, Alex Smith.
The 49ers quarterback received a kick in the butt at the most unexpected moment.
As Smith was preparing to leave the 49ers practice late Wednesday and go home to his family the night before Thanksgiving, he was summoned to come in and speak to Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh told him he would not be starting on Sunday against the New Orleans Saints. The decision to sit Smith was all based on Harbaugh’s gut feeling.
The 49ers’ coach is generally credited with having turned Smith’s career around when he was hired after the 2010 season, since then Smith has been a consistent and accurate quarterback. Completing a league-best 70 percent (152-of-217) of his passes this season including 1,731 yards with 13 TDs and 5 interceptions.
He is no Eli Manning, Tom Brady or Drew Brees and is certainly not Aaron Rodgers or Peyton Manning. Both Harbaugh and Smith know this, and that’s why the 49ers made an effort to sign Peyton in the offseason.
The partnership between Harbaugh and Smith is somewhat uneasy as a result of that pursuit.
In Week 10 against the Rams, Smith took a shot to the head and went out of the game with a concussion.
In stepped second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick who displayed excellent mobility, but he was only capable of leading the Niners to a 24-24 tie in that game. He was not bad in that game, but he was not great.
Smith was not cleared to play a week later when the Niners hosted the Chicago Bears, who are ranked 5th overall in total defense in the NFL. The Bears defense does give up some yards during the game, but they take the ball away from opposing offenses and have scored seven touchdowns, which no other defenses come close to that.
That meant Kaepernick was being tested by one of the best defenses in NFL, and he passed that test with flying colors. He was brilliant as he led the Niners to a 32-7 win. Kaepernick completed 16-of-23 passes for 243 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions.
Despite his explosive speed, he did not turn into a running quarterback. He carried the ball four times for 12 yards.
He didn’t play like a second-year quarterback who was making his first start. He looked polished, mature, talented and ready.
Harbaugh saw brilliance in Kaepernick’s performance. He started the game by firing a laser to wide receiver Mario Manningham, a ball that he threaded into a small opening to hit his target between the numbers. That throw got Harbaugh’s attention.
But it was a throw to receiver Kyle Williams on the Niners’ second drive that was Harbaugh’s OMG moment. Williams ran an out and up pattern down the right sideline, the Niners’ offensive line gave Kaepernick pristine protection and the quarterback surveyed the field and saw Williams get open.
Kaepernick launched a perfectly thrown ball that fell into Williams hands. After catching it in stride at full speed, Williams turned it into a 57-yard gain.
It was a throw that Rodgers, Brees, Brady and the Manning brothers could have made. It was not a throw Smith could have made.
As the rout played out, Harbaugh decided that Kaepernick was a better quarterback than Smith.
He made it official last night, telling Smith that Kaepernick would start at New Orleans. The decision had nothing to do with Smith’s health.
In some ways, Harbaugh has made a gutsy decision, similar to the one Bill Belichick made in 2001 when he ultimately made Tom Brady the starter over Drew Bledsoe. Brady had been forced into the lineup after Bledsoe had been injured (against the Jets) and Belichick ultimately gave the start to Brady when they met the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI.
The difference between the two situations is that Belichick made his decision to bench the previous starter after Brady had nearly a full season of action under his belt.
Harbaugh has made his move after just 1 ½ games.
That’s a very quick trigger finger, and some might think too quick.
Kaepernick had a great game on a day when his offensive line was dominant. How will he do when he is under pressure and on the run?
Kaepernick has much to learn. He has proven he can have one great game under the best circumstances a quarterback can face.
Harbaugh appears to have a Super Bowl-caliber team. His bold move may prove to be foolish.
What do you think of Harbaugh’s move to start Kaepernick over Smith against the Saints? Let us know below in the comment section.