As good as Colin Kaepernick was in the San Francisco 49ers' win over the Chicago Bears, Alex Smith is the 49ers' starting quarterback and should remain so for the rest of the 2012 NFL season.
Don't get me wrong, Kaepernick was fantastic against an elite defense. He was active as both a passer and as a mobile quarterback outside of the pocket. He wasn't content just to run for first downs, but hit seven different receivers en route to nearly 250 yards passing, two touchdowns, no turnovers (against the Bears!) and a passer rating of 133.1.
The problem for Kaepernick is that Smith didn't do anything to lose his job. While the 49ers have had some missteps this season—most notably a loss to the Minnesota Vikings and a tie against the St. Louis Rams)—Smith has overplayed any projection people had for him. He even surpassed my lofty expectations from July.
Now, Alex Smith (statistically speaking) has improved from 2011, his best season as a pro, and the 49ers have the second best record in the NFL. With the Bears' loss and the Texans' scare against Jacksonville, it could be argued that no team is playing better than the Niners right now.
It's extremely important not to get caught up in the moment following Kaepernick's impressive showing. Surprisingly enough, Jim Harbaugh did just that after he was asked about the brewing quarterback controversy last night:
49ers HC Jim Harbaugh on QB situation: “I usually tend to go with the guy that has the hot hand and we have two that have a hot hand.”— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) November 20, 2012
The problem with "go[ing] with the guy that has the hot hand" is that NFL practices (both in season and during the offseason) are growing more and more restricted. There is less time for backup quarterbacks to prepare for the season, gain chemistry with their receivers and drill plays.
Last night was just that—one night. If a playoff-bound team wants to make a quarterback change, it needs to make those decisions in early February, not in November. The worst thing possible for the 49ers is trotting Kaepernick out there and having his "hot hand" cool off.
A split locker room would doom the 49ers. "Team Alex" and "Team Colin" would be as lost and hopeless as all the Twilight fans who helped inspire the "Team [Name]" meme.
This is one team. This is the San Francisco 49ers. And in 2012, this is Alex Smith's team. Inserting Kaepernick into that equation after one good game could have disastrous consequences. It would be a knee-jerk reaction for a team that is building toward greatness.
Don't misunderstand this as a screed against Kaepernick. Oh, I'm a fan—always have been. As a former college coaching assistant, I watched a lot of Nevada as my offense prepared to run Pistol sets like the ones Kaepernick mastered in college. Sure, he ran a niche offense in a small conference, but his athleticism and poise were evident.
At the Senior Bowl, Kaepernick wowed scouts with muscle definition that had been hidden under his Wolfpack jersey. He wasn't just tall and lanky, he was built like a mixed martial artist and played with similar toughness. Covering the event for Rotoworld, I wrote:
"At practice, Kaepernick was spotty, but threw the ball as well as anyone and drew buzz from several team scouts. Currently a mid-round prospect, Kaepernick could rise quickly in this class."
Selfishly, I'd love for Kaepernick to take the reins and lead the 49ers to the promised land. Quite honestly, I believe he will...one day.
Alex Smith is 28, entering his prime and should have plenty of football ahead of him now that the carousel of offensive coordinators and new schemes has finally halted. He just signed a three-year deal, but is easily cut with only $9 million guaranteed and a $1 million roster bonus due in March.
If he falters, he would still garner plenty of interest from the many teams that need quarterback help. Even better, it's a year where the draft doesn't look to be of much help in that regard.
On the other hand, If Smith finishes the season well, Kaepernick isn't going anywhere until 2015—when Smith is 31. His one game against the Bears would put him in Matt Flynn-like territory and the 49ers could shop him around on that same quarterback-friendly market.
Of course, the same could be equally true if Kaepernick finishes the season on a run, but that route hardly seems worth going down unless coaches are convinced—absolutely 100 percent, unequivocally convinced—that he is the better player.
If coaches were convinced of that, what has kept him from starting all along?
Again, this is Smith's team. He gives the Niners the better chance to win right now and he gives them the better chance to win in January.
The direction here is clear. Kaepernick is the 49ers' quarterback of the future. He proved pretty conclusively on Monday night. However, Smith—both this year and last—has earned the right to be the 49ers' quarterback of the present.
Michael Schottey is the NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff alongside other great writers at "The Go Route."
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