San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh announced on Wednesday that Colin Kaepernick will get the start this week against the St. Louis Rams. “We’ve got two quarterbacks that we feel great about as the starting quarterback. Both have earned it, both deserve it,” Harbaugh said. “Colin, we believe, has the hot hand, and we’ll go with Colin.”
Harbaugh put to bed the quarterback controversy… at least as far as this week goes. He certainly didn’t rule out going back to Alex Smith at some point. At one point in the press conference, he said they would go with Kaepernick, and then added, “… and we’ll go with Alex. They’re both our guys.”
The “hot hand” argument leaves the door open, but Harbaugh wasn’t going to play the “what if” game, as reporters asked him questions about various scenarios and what he would do under this circumstance or that. His answer, in typical Harbaugh style, was, “We’ll worry about everything and we’ll fear nothing – no moment, no circumstance.”
Harbaugh was complementary of Alex Smith when asked how he handled the news, saying, “Alex is a class act all the way. He’ll prepare as he is the starter. And that’s what we would expect. And be ready to go in and play and contribute to this football team.”
For Kaepernick, it will be his third consecutive start. The 49ers are 2-0 in his previous two starts, and he played a significant portion of the last Rams game which ended in a 24-24 tie. He gets a chance for revenge in this week’s game. On the season, Kaepernick’s numbers are strong, as he has a 102.3 quarterback efficiency, completing 64.9 percent of his passes with 3 TDs in the air and 4 TDs on the ground, compared with 1 INT.
Alex Smith was in the midst of the best season of his career, and his numbers are actually somewhat better than Kaepernick’s. Smith so far this year has a passer efficiency of 104.1 (fifth in the NFL) and has a league-leading completion percentage of 70 percent with 13 TDs and 5 INTs (three of them coming in the loss to the New York Giants). In fact, in the last two games he played in, Smith completed 25 of 27 passes (92.5 percent) including an NFL best 18 of 19 in a 24-3 win at Arizona on October 29. His passer efficiency was above 140 in each of his last two games.
Both have performed well, and both have a solid running game and one of the league’s best defenses to lean on. Kaepernick does have the stronger arm and better running ability, and seems to have a higher potential ceiling. He does get the ball down field a bit better, as he is averaging 9.2 yards per attempt versus Smith’s 7.98. But the 9.2 is in far fewer games, and Smith’s 7.98 ties him for third in the NFL, trailing only Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III. Kaepernick is likely to come back to the pack in that particularly stat. Looking at the 49ers relatively low passing yardage, it is clearly a function of how often they throw the ball rather than a sign of any flaw if Smith’s game.
Ultimately, Harbaugh sees a lot more snaps in practice and must feel that Kaepernick has the potential to take the team further down the road. In his limited starts, Kaepernick has shown flashes of brilliance, particularly against the Bears. Smith is a known quantity, and would probably be the safer pick to stay with for the remainder of the season, but Harbaugh isn’t one to play things safe.
The 49ers defense is second in yards allowed and first in points allowed. San Francisco has the top running attack in the league, averaging 163.4 yards per game. But the 49ers are 27th in passing. Smith has been very efficient, but they haven’t asked him to open up the passing game. If they can improve their passing attack without increasing their turnovers, they will be a runaway favorite to bring home their sixth Lombardi trophy.
Harbaugh’s history indicates that he knows a few things about developing quarterbacks. He developed Andrew Luck at Stanford for his first three years, turning him into the best QB in college football. Since arriving at the 49ers, he brought Alex Smith up from being widely regarded as a bust to one of the top 10 QBs in the NFL. Smith had never had a season with a QB efficiency above 82.5 prior to Harbaugh, and he was at 90.7 last season and 104 this year.
It’s a bold call, but Harbaugh has earned the benefit of the doubt.
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