Sunday afternoon, after I finished writing about the San Francisco 49ers’ overtime loss in St. Louis, I left my apartment for the first time all day (a proud moment) on a mission to get some Christmas lights to hang on our fire escape. During my journey I passed four men standing in a doorway and smoking marijuana — par for the course on Divisadero Street in San Francisco. What was unique about this scene wasn’t what I smelled, but what I heard.
“Man, f— Kaepernick!”
This proclamation was met with a chorus of increasingly louder voices shouting the guy down. I couldn’t make out what was said, and I wasn’t about to stop walking and eavesdrop on their argument. Plus, I’d already been inundated with this debate on Twitter all day, complete with a hashtag.
A cynic might wonder whether Ashkon would support Alex if the chorus of “Niners in Paris” wasn’t built around “That Smith cray,” but I truly believe he thinks Smith deserves to start. A lot of people do, and they have plenty of reasons to feel this way.
1. Mike Nolan was the 49ers’ head coach during Smith’s rookie year (2005), with Mike McCarthy as his offensive coordinator. In 2006, McCarthy left for Green Bay and was replaced by Norv Turner. The next season, Turner left for San Diego and was replaced by Jim Hostler. In 2008, Nolan was fired and replaced by Mike Singletary, and Hostler’s position was filled by Mike Martz (who thought J.T. O’Sullivan was the second coming of Kurt Warner). Martz was relieved from his duties after the 2008 season, with Singletary handing the offense to Jimmy Raye. After the 49ers started 0-3 in 2010, Raye was fired and Mike Johnson stepped in. Jim Harbaugh took over after the 2010 season. Smith was here through all of this nonsense, when any other sane quarterback probably would’ve bailed.
2. Harbaugh publicly endorsed Smith as a very good (Elite, even!) NFL quarterback so frequently and enthusiastically that fans couldn’t help but believe that perhaps Harbaugh was telling the truth. Maybe Alex had only scratched the surface, and Harbaugh would show us why he was chosen first overall in ’05.
3. Smith led a playoff comeback against the New Orleans Saints in the 49ers’ most exciting win in over a decade.
4. Smith’s winning percentage (including playoffs) after Harbaugh took over: .759.
5. Smith suffered a concussion, then led the 49ers to a TD while dealing with symptoms including blurry vision. By the time he was medically cleared, he was no longer in Harbaugh’s plans.
For a full-fledged quarterback controversy, there must be a debate. In the Smith vs. Kaepernick debate, both sides are flush with valid points. Even people who like Smith can see that Kaepernick is ridiculously talented. And while the 49ers’ locker room might be unified in their support of whoever’s under center on any given week (give or take a Joe Staley comment or two), the fans are divided. For just as many people who point to those five reasons listed earlier to keep Smith as the starter, there are just as many who believe enough in Harbaugh’s track record as a quarterback evaluator/developer to extrapolate a future Super Bowl win for Kaepernick based on snippets from several games and one amazing first half against Chicago.
See, even I’m hedging my bets. And I’m one of the ones who’s glad the 49ers went with Kaepernick. I mentally checked out on the idea of, “Yeah, the Niners can get No. 6 this year” after Antrel Rolle intercepted Smith twice in a 2-minute span in the third quarter on Oct. 14, and seeing Kaepernick lay it on the Bears in person was enough for me. I was sold. And like Harbaugh, I can’t go back now.
What about the CHILDREN?
QB controversies are more fun when they happen on other teams. The 49ers have inserted themselves in the national conversation for the first time in forever (it’s been weird turning on ESPN Radio while driving at night and hearing Amy Lawrence or Freddie Coleman talking about the 49ers), but it means people who should be on the same side throw darts at each other like Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith.
For sportswriters, talking heads and everyone else trying to live off the wake created by the NFL’s ship, Alex vs. Kap is great. Yet it has to be confusing and maybe even a little upsetting for kids who grew up watching and rooting for Smith.
I remember when the Joe Montana vs. Steve Young uproar was as at full volume (late 1980s) and we went down to Los Angeles to visit my dad’s extended family. I idolized my cousin Scott, who is about five years older than I am and probably already had a bookie (even though he was only in 8th or 9th grade at the time). He knew EVERYTHING about sports, so it turned my world upside down when he started arguing with us at the hotel pool. Scott was fully behind Young getting the job and said the 49ers should trade Montana. My father and I were 100% sure Montana was the best NFL’s top quarterback, not only at the time but in the history of the world.
I slowly grew to appreciate Young and continued to root for the 49ers after Montana was dealt to the Kansas City Chiefs, unlike my mom. She rooted for Montana to beat Young the one time their teams faced each other (in a game where Young was tackled for a safety by Derrick Thomas when San Francisco had a 7-point lead … San Francisco would eventually lose by 7).
Although, to be fair, I’m pretty sure Montana was my mom’s No. 2 celebrity crush behind Robert Plant. Let’s move on…
When Smith leaves next year — and Smith is definitely leaving unless Kaepernick suffers some horrific injury doing that little “slow down and almost skip after leaving the pocket, in the process allowing a defensive end to crush him from behind” thing he likes to do — his fans will get over it. They’ll quietly grumble whenever Kaepernick makes silly mistakes, but nothing like the vitriol Young faced after Montana was traded. Unless…
If the 49ers don’t at least make it to the NFC Championship this season, Smith’s fans won’t let the Kap backers forget it unless Smith either fails to land a starting job somewhere else or fails epically with his next team (and I’m pretty sure we all know he’s going to the Cardinals next year).
Smith’s fans might even complain if Kaepernick gets to the Conference Title Game and loses. (“Alex just needed a second full season in Roman’s system.”) That’s what comes with SUPER BOWL OR BUST expectations. When you build a team that’s deep and talented enough to be a contender with any decent quarterback one can think of, the stakes when it comes to choosing the correct one get that much higher. When opponents are seen as speedbumps instead of worthy adversaries, fans tend to turn on each other. Regardless of the relative quality of the quarterbacks involved, it’s the same situation that happened in the late ’80s/early ’90s. And unless Kaepernick turns out to be a future Hall of Famer, with Harbaugh’s wandering eye it’ll happen again.