Kaepernick Passes Eye Test Better Than Smith, but Does He Actually Pass Better?

Michael ErlerCorrespondent INovember 27, 2012

Harbaugh has been rolling sevens with his switch to Kaepernick so far.
Harbaugh has been rolling sevens with his switch to Kaepernick so far.Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Look, you can see why the quarterback picked in the first round of the 2005 draft had to be benched. The evidence was clear as day against the New York Giants

Bad interceptions. Lost fumbles. The team was never in the game after the first quarter in the embarrassing loss. 

Lets face it, the writing was on the wall.

Yup, there's no way around it. Aaron Rodgers had to be benched in favor of Graham Harrell in Green Bay's stinker of a loss to the Giants, 38-10 on Sunday night, in a game you might have missed because you were too busy celebrating and toasting the burgeoning Colin Kaepernick Era. 

Lets begin with the obvious and the factual: Kaepernick was indeed very impressive against the Saints. He outplayed Drew Brees (well, so did Chad Henne, Ryan Tannehill, Andy Dalton, Russell Wilson, Nick Foles and, like, 20 other guys) in the 49ers convincing 31-21 win at New Orleans that would've just about put the nail in the Saints' playoff coffin if not for losses by damn near every other NFC team in the wild-card hunt, save Washington

Kaepernick was calm, collected, poised and every other cliche you can attach to the play of a young quarterback when you don't want to admit to the free world you don't really know what the hell you're talking about.

The numbers tell us he was 16-of-25, for 231 yards, with one touchdown pass, another score with his feet, and a fairly grizzly interception. It was not nearly as stellar a showing as his starting debut against the Bears (the encore performance coming against a far worse defense, it should be mentioned), but it was plenty enough for a 49ers quarterback to win a game nine times out of ten.

It was also worse than Alex Smith's average start has been this year, unless you're one of those people who hate reading and math. 

Here's a controversial opinion on the 49ers: They're a very good team. 

Unfortunately, for too many people out there, including scores of broadcasters and journalists who should know better, "team" is defined as a quarterback, a coach and 52 other nameless, faceless automatons that act in perfectly predictable form and fashion at the whims of said quarterback and coach.

People cannot seem to accept that the fates of a football team depend on hundreds of variables on every given play. The quarterback and the coach can only control so much. 

The theme the past season-and-a-half of the "Alex Smith-Game Manager" 49ers is that the rest of the squad is so good that that all Smith has to do is merely not screw it up. 

Against the Saints though, in a contest in which the 49ers defense barely lost to the 49ers offense 17-14, a game in which they sacked Brees five times in the second half and hounded him countless others, it was Kaepernick who got tossed the bouquets and plaudits whereas Smith never would have received that same courtesy.

And you'll forgive me if I struggle to understand why.

No matter how you slice it, the fact is inarguable: The offense scored 17 points against the Saints. Two touchdowns and a field goal in a 60-minute game. Not bad, not great, just average. 

It may be hard to remember, seeing as it came all of ten months ago, but Smith led the fellas to 36 points, including 14 in the final three minutes, against these same Saints in a slightly more important game, a contest in which he threw for three touchdowns, ran for another and didn't throw any balls to the other team.

If 17 points sounds like a familiar number to you, it should. It was how many Smith led the offense to in the NFC Championship Game overtime loss to the Giants.

It was also how many Tom Brady led the Patriots to in a Super Bowl loss to the Giants two weeks later.

The 18-0 Patriots of 2007, if you recall, put up all of 14 points in a 17-14 loss to Eli Manning and the Giants the first time those teams hooked up in the Super Bowl.

Aaron Rodgers got creamed by the Giants at home in a playoff game last season and again Sunday night.

Eli Manning, meanwhile, went 9-7 last regular season (including a loss to Smith and Co.), and has been simply awful the past month, before rebounding last night.

Here's my point: In football, things happen.

No matter how dominant a team or a quarterback can look for a game or even a string of games, nobody gets to cheat the reaper forever over the course of the season. No team is "clunker-proof" in the NFL, particularly in a single-elimination postseason tournament, no matter how much you wish they were.

There's always a "Helmet Catch" or a pair of Kyle Williams fumbles around the corner, waiting to ruin your life.

49ers fans are quite the arrogant lot. Whereas two years ago all they wanted was to finish 9-7 and sneak into the playoffs, now it's not enough to win consistently. Winning ugly cannot be tolerated. Winning with a bad quarter here and a quiet half there will not be accepted. Every game has to be a 41-3 demolishing, with the quarterback putting up video game numbers.

The rationalizations and arguments against Smith get more absurd by the day. One enterprising young bay area columnist wrote that Kaepernick evaded a number of sacks that Smith wouldn't have and that "If Alex Smith had played, he would have been sacked five times."

In the same column, our young friend guessed that Kaepernick made "five-to-ten plays that Alex Smith absolutely cannot make." 

This is what sports journalism has come to in 2012, critiquing players on hypothetical plays that haven't happened and never will. Another young lad seduced by the eye-pleasing charms of the mobile quarterback, oblivious to the lead-footed dominance of Tom Brady and the Manning bros. this past decade.

I can play that game, too, watch: "Smith would've never thrown an interception right at Patrick Robinson. Smith would've never taken two delay-of-game penalties. He would've audibled out of every single play that went badly for Kaepernick. Vernon Davis wouldn't have dropped his pass because it wouldn't have been thrown as hard. Smith would've never let Ted Ginn fumble or let Kyle Williams and Kendall Hunter suffer season-ending injuries on the same play." 

You see how stupid this sounds?

If people could predict, consistently, what can and cannot happen in football games, they'd be too busy cavorting with supermodels off their millions upon millions of gambling winnings to bother working in sports media. 

It's all mindless speculation.

The NFL Network's Michael Irvin, another fellow whose Mensa documentation got lost in the mail, claimed last night that "The 49ers have reached their ceiling with Alex Smith. They are at their floor with Colin Kaepernick." (Thanks to my pal Dan Brown from The San Jose Mercury News for that quote).

This raises two immediate questions.

A) A ceiling where you're a Williams fumble away from advancing to the Super Bowl is something to be scoffed at now? As a Philadelphia Eagles fan, I'd sprain my neck craning up to view such a ceiling. 

B) How can Irvin, or anyone for that matter, possibly know what Smith's ceiling is? People speculated that last season's numbers were his ceiling, the absolute apex of how Smith can play. In 2012, he's upped his completion percentage from 61.7 percent to 70.0 and his passer rating from 90.7 to 104.1.

Smith is 28 years old. There's no reason to think he's even reached his prime yet. For historical reference, both Joe Montana and Steve Young both enjoyed the finest seasons of their careers (capped off with blowout Super Bowl wins) when they were 33. Brady was 30 in 2007. 

The problem for Smith, and Tim Kawakami from the Merc touched on this previously, so I'll credit him for it, is that he's the victim of "The Barry Zito Syndrome." 

Simply too much bad has happened for him where no matter what success he's had recently, nobody will ever trust or have faith in him going forward. It's just impossible to turn the page, mentally. 

Zito led the Giants to 13 consecutive wins in his starts down the stretch and in the postseason (to be fair, he wasn't always the winning pitcher in those games and didn't always pitch well in some), yet the free world speculated that he had no chance against Justin Verlander and the Detroit Tigers in Game 1 of the World Series. 

Zito increased the streak to 14, the Giants won another Series, but you can be sure the next time he starts in April, he'll be viewed with suspicion after the first walk or hit he allows. 

Smith was 20-6-1 as a starter, counting the playoffs under Jim Harbaugh, and he has some impressive pelts on his wall. He did beat Manning once last season, he's gotten the better of old pal Rodgers at Green Bay, he won a playoff shootout against Brees. He's won a dome game in "real road playoff atmosphere" (via San Jose Mercury News) at Detroit.

All of these things happened. They weren't flukes or accidents. I find it hard to believe that anybody who's won those games is incapable of leading a team with a superior running game and a terrific defense to a Super Bowl.

If you think that, you're then categorically saying that Smith is worse than Trent Dilfer and Brad Johnson and are a crazy person. 

Smith took heat last season for throwing to Vernon Davis too much and the wide receivers not enough and he's taken his this year for the opposite. Kaepernick was trumped up after the Bears game as the guy who would unlock Davis downfield and throw bombs to Randy Moss.

Well, Davis went catch-less, the only pass attempted to Moss was from the Saints' 5-yard-line (and would've been intercepted if not for Moss mauling Malcolm Jenkins) and the pass-catching stars of the day were Delanie Walker, Mario Manningham and Bruce Miller. 

If you think Kaepernick (or anyone) will turn Davis and Michael Crabtree into 1,200-yard receivers and rekindle memories of the Vikings-era Moss, you clearly haven't been paying attention, and you don't understand Harbaugh's offense. 

The coach praised Kaepernick Monday morning for a drive that ended in a field goal when Smith has been criticized to a fare-thee-well for leading drives that end in field goals. 

To quote the most famous sportswriter of our time, "Stop, just stop." 

Harbaugh has his reasons for going with Kaepernick over Smith, and ultimately his opinion is the only one that matters. The rest is just idle speculation and Neanderthal rock throwing. 

Just realize that whatever your issues you had with Smith, they were not based on fact or any available evidence. They were products of your biases and preconceived notions and your lying eyes. The 49ers, one of six or seven teams in the Super Bowl conversation, will win games when their defense plays lights out or even decently, nine times out of ten with Smith. 

But you're living in a fantasy if you think Kaepernick (or anyone) will make them impervious to games where the defense cannot force a turnover to save its life and the punt returner coughs it up twice. When the football gods declare it's your turn to lose, it's your turn to lose.

I gotta say I do like Kaepernick's chances against Graham Harrell though.  


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