Waking up to the news that Colin Kaepernick will start at quarterback for the 49ers tonight was certainly a strange feeling. We already knew Jay Cutler was officially ruled out for the Bears — that news broke last Friday. Still, all indications were that Alex Smith would be cleared to play, and all indications were wrong.
We were told that he took the first string snaps in practice and sought the necessary second opinions. Nearly all the pundits hypothesized that he would be the starter. However, when you’re dealing with a team like the 49ers, hypothesizing about injuries is all that you can ever do.
This situation has taught us three important lessons about the NFL, the 49ers, and our feelings with Alex Smith:
1. We want to see the NFL’s brightest stars
My apologies if you watched the Ravens take on the Steelers last night. I am utterly sick of watching the Steelers, who are shoved down our throats in the form of a primetime game almost every week. Throw in Byron Leftwich bumbling around the pocket for four hours and that game was a snoozer of epic proportions.
I rarely find myself agreeing with Larry Krueger, but I did last week when he was talking about the NFL protecting its stars. That Sunday Night Football game would have been much more entertaining with Ben Roethlisberger playing. You can say the same thing about tonight — it would be more compelling if Jay Cutler and Alex Smith were starting. Cutler has been known to throw up all over the field (see: Thursday Night at Candlestick, 2009), but he’s also been known to light up a defense with his arm. We all remember the last time Campbell took on the 49ers, right? “Captain Checkdown” was a Raider, and he ended 8-for-21 for 83 yards and two interceptions.
Fans will complain when their defensive end gets penalized for grazing a quarterback’s helmet, but these rules exist for a reason. The NFL needs their star quarterbacks healthy and playing; if not, we get Leftwiches lulling us to sleep.
2. Following the 49ers is a guessing game
Curveballs like this Smith injury are becoming commonplace under the Jim Harbaugh-era 49ers. Secrecy is an oft-utilized tactic — they want to keep their opponent in the dark as much as possible, thus forcing them to prepare for every possible situation. In believing that the 49ers would have Smith under center for the last week, the Bears have watched countless hours of film on both quarterbacks.
Kaepernick is certainly an exciting quarterback to watch. He has the physical skills of Cam Newton and brings the promise of a much more dynamic offense than one led by Smith. The offensive attack that Smith mans could almost be characterized as prude: it’s slow-moving, calculated, turnover-limiting, field goal-kickin’ football. Still, what Smith lacks in dynamism he makes up for with experience and sound decision making. That’s paramount, especially against an opportunistic defense like the Bears’.
It’s not the sexiest brand of football, but this team’s strengths lie in the run game, special teams and defense. With that formula, Smith provides the 49ers with the best chance to win. By limiting mistakes and providing just enough firepower for a lead, the San Francisco 49ers have won most of their games under Harbaugh. Smith’s supporters don’t want him to start because they believe he will throw for 350 yards and four touchdowns; they want Smith to start because they trust him to minimize mistakes.
With Smith unavailable, now everyone gets to see if Kaepernick can continue the improvement he showed throughout the second half and overtime against the Rams. Whether or not he can defeat the Bears will lead to headlines tonight, but it makes sense to save Smith if he’s still feeling symptoms from last week’s concussion. If the goal is a long-term one (a championship) and Smith gives the team the best chance to achieve said goal, there is no reason to put his season on the line tonight — based on Cutler sitting this one out, the Bears agree with this philosophy.