I’m a terrible multitasker, and as such it’s difficult to focus on more than one “hot take” discussion topic at once. So with all the discussion over whether Jim Harbaugh is in the middle of his last year coaching the 49ers, win or lose, my mind can’t stretch around getting sick of an old 49ers argument.
Colin Kaepernick vs. Alex Smith.
I’ve spoken with (either in person or on the internets) more than a few people who think/thought Smith would’ve won the Super Bowl in New Orleans, which to me is supremely ridiculous. However, arguing hypotheticals is a waste of time.
“He would’ve won that game.”
“No, he wouldn’t have.”
“Yes he would’ve, DUDE.”
“I don’t think he would’ve beaten the Falcons in Atlanta.”
“You don’t know that.”
“I’m going to grab a beer. You need one?”
That’s probably about as productive as that conversation can possibly go. But if Smith would’ve driven his Chiefs down the field for a game-winning touchdown yesterday, the Alex-backers would’ve been insufferable today. Instead, he threw a crappy pass to the left sideline to A.J. Jenkins (who hasn’t changed since the 49ers traded him … at all) that was defended by Chris Culliver, and floated an even worse pass over his tight end that was caught easily by Perrish Cox.
After the Chiefs’ opening drive of the game, following a blowout win over the Patriots on national TV six days earlier, I silently prepared for what seemed inevitable at the time. Kaepernick was going to throw at least one interception, possibly on the very next drive, and Smith was going to roll to a 250-yard, two-TD day and a comfortable victory, and then he’d ride off into the sunset with a very vocal minority of 49ers fans singing “I told you soooooo.”
But that didn’t happen. Once the 49ers realized Andy Reid’s game plan wasn’t exactly like the one for which they prepared, the openings in the intermediate area of the field closed. Smith went from looking like the guy who led the 49ers to that classic Saints win to the Smith who usually struggled against good defenses (like the New York Giants, both in the 1-for-13-on-third-downs NFCCG and the rematch several months later — when Smith couldn’t stop throwing interceptions and was pulled in favor of Kaepernick late in the fourth quarter).
We also saw the main difference between these two quarterbacks. Their surface stats are pretty similar, both in terms of wins and losses (a silly way to judge quarterbacks, but whatever) and stuff like yards, touchdowns and quarterback rating. But Kaepernick takes chances down the field and Smith doesn’t. According to Pro Football Focus, Kaepernick’s average depth of target was 11 yards yesterday, compared to just 6.6 for Smith. Teams might task a linebacker with “spying” on Kaepernick, but they can’t stack the box. That opens up space for Frank Gore and Carlos Hyde, and in turn the success of the running backs opens up more space for the passing game (that’s why the 49ers are most successful when their run/pass ratio is close to 50/50).
Both teams have solid defenses and run games. The 49ers would appear to have more receivers, but yesterday they were without Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree is dealing with an injured foot, and for some reason Stevie Johnson only got five snaps.
Smith was barely pressured at all. According to PFF, he was pressure only only 8-of-32 dropbacks (25%), and he was 2-for-8 with 15 yards and an INT on those plays. Kaepernick was 6-for-10 with 129 passing yards and a touchdown when blitzed. Those numbers aren’t directly comparable — just because a team blitzes doesn’t necessarily mean they get pressure — but Harbaugh made the decision to go with Kaepernick for several reasons, and two primary factors were Kaepernick’s ability to stretch the field and handle pressure.
There’s pressure from pass rushers, and there’s pressure from key situations. If Smith hadn’t given the ball away in that last drive, and had driven the Chiefs to victory instead, the effects of this game would’ve lingered. Kaepernick probably would’ve done his postgame press conference with his pink Beats over his ears and the volume turned full blast. Alex backers would’ve had ammunition for years, since the 49ers probably won’t face the Chiefs again until 2018.
It would’ve brought to mind that famous 49ers/Chiefs game in 1994, when Joe Montana led the Chiefs to a close win over Steve Young’s 49ers. “Today, the master had a little more to teach the student,” Young said, which didn’t stop Montana fans from crowing for a while.
Of course these two situations are wildly different, other than the franchises involved. Smith and Kaepernick didn’t seem to have anywhere close to the same competitive disdain for each other. Montana was a four-time champion and on his way to the Hall of Fame. But the only quarterback who’s close to as popular as a talented backup is the quarterback who got (or was traded) away. The Smith vs. Kaepernick debate wasn’t really much of one when compared to Montana vs. Young, and it’s nice to know that it effectively ended yesterday.