Jim Harbaugh’s decision to drop Alex Smith for Colin Kaepernick was fascinating, like watching a man put his mortgage on one hand of Blackjack before the cards were dealt. Some called the move crazy, irrational and unnecessary — he was already playing with house money and was up a good deal of it. But none of us had seen what Harbaugh has, from every frame of film documenting Kaepernick’s career at Nevada to all the snaps in practice and hours of studying. Like counting cards, this move now seems perfectly calculated. He knew exactly what he was doing and had the advantage when he pushed his chips out there.
After watching what Kaepernick did in Foxboro last night, there’s nothing left to discuss. Barring injury, only one quarterback gets the chance to lead this 49ers team to their sixth Super Bowl victory, and the win over the Patriots showed why Harbaugh chose Kaepernick.
Maybe it was the elements, but this game felt strangely similar to last year’s NFC Championship. There wasn’t nearly as much scoring back in January, but Smith had one dynamic receiver in Vernon Davis, and beyond Davis the passing game was nonexistent. The 49ers took an early lead. But Eli Manning, who was absolutely surgical that night, took it away. All the 49ers needed was one measly field goal to win, and Smith had several chances to do it. He couldn’t capitalize on any of them.
Kaepernick didn’t waste any time once the score was knotted last night. All it took was one possession.
Forget his numbers for a moment and focus on the throws. Smith’s deep balls seemed to fall into only Davis’ hands, meaning the first touchdown pass to Randy Moss probably wouldn’t have happened with Smith under center. Smith also tends to avoid receivers he doesn’t trust, so he may have decided against hitting Delanie Walker in the end zone for the second touchdown after Walker’s red zone fumble.
The first touchdown to Michael Crabtree? Forget it. Smith refuses to make that throw 100 times out of 100, because he can’t. Cris Collinsworth said Kaepernick’s pass went 60 mph. Quarterbacking isn’t just about arm strength, but arm strength combined with accuracy creates more options.
The game-winning touchdown pass was more about Crabtree’s playmaking ability than anything Kaepernick did, but Crabtree has already made a lot of plays off Kaepernick throws. Where Smith had big play chemistry with only Davis, Kaepernick seems to trust Crabtree and Moss equally.
We’ll have to take the good with the bad, meaning that while we enjoy all Kaepernick’s upside, we’ll fold a concerned brow every time he muffs a snap, burns an unnecessary timeout or takes off scrambling with the football unprotected. Those habits can be coached out of a young quarterback, however. Downfield accuracy, athleticism and mettle cannot be coached into a veteran. Smith is respected for being a classy individual, as well as an efficient quarterback who won’t take unnecessary risks to gain glory. Kaepernick is a different kind of player, but other players respect his style just as much … if not more. From Yahoo’s Jason Cole:
“He was poised, nothing fazed him, and the guys on their team rally around him,” Patriots Pro Bowl nose tackle Vince Wilfork said. “He’s a good leader … a good leader.”
Or as San Francisco guard Alex Boone said: “Am I worried about him in those situations? Not anymore.”
Last night’s game probably told us all what Jim Harbaugh refuses to: there are two types of teams the 49ers simply can’t beat consistently with Smith. One is a team like the Giants, with a fierce defensive front and an efficient offense. The Giants are similar to the 49ers, with the only clear edge showing up under center.
The other is a team like the Patriots, scoring at will and taking advantage when opponents get complacent or just plain exhausted from their blistering offensive pace. It’s teams like those that stand in the way of the 49ers winning a Super Bowl this year, and San Francisco’s odds just got a whole lot better with Kaepernick at the helm.
This offense is more than just watchable now — it’s dynamic and dangerous. It’s potent enough to outscore the Patriots in the elements in Foxboro. Most importantly though, it’s no longer the anchor holding them back from a potential championship.