Head coach Jim Harbaugh just announced that Colin Kaepernick will start for the third straight game for the 49ers. That means Alex Smith will once again sit on the sidelines and watch the second-year quarterback lead the team. Smith will have to watch his future with the 49ers slowly disappear.
Unlike a lot of people, I actually don’t think that Smith has played his last snap for the 49ers. The 49ers still need Smith’s presence as the backup. Kaepernick needs his veteran to help guide him. Don’t expect that this is the last time we see Smith under center for the 49ers this year. A part of me feels that this is similar to the 2001 Patriots team. Somewhere down the line, the original Week 1 starter will return late in the season to save the team. It could happen again for this 49ers team.
The team knows that they have two capable quarterbacks on the roster. Players have said that it’s good to have two players that the team trusts to lead the team. And ultimately, that’s a good problem to have. But it’s a problem that could have been avoided and Smith would have never lost his starting job. And Smith knows that he blew it.
Since the game against the Bears, I started to wonder if this switch to Kaepernick was inevitable. I knew that 2013 would be Kaepernick’s chance to win the starting job. But this season was still Smith’s opportunity to shine. And Smith had every right to keep his starting job. That was until Smith did something that cost him that starting job.
Smith’s injury against the Rams three weeks ago gave Kaepernick the opportunity to play. Kaepernick has since started the last two games and will start his third this Sunday. That injury that took out Smith should have never happened.
On that scramble, Smith had every opportunity to slide and avoid a hit to the back of his head. Instead, Smith turned, ducked and got concussed. That one play started this snowball to avalanche effect.
Smith has been pretty smart with sliding in recent years. Despite being a tough quarterback that can take hits, he has the tendency to avoid disaster. Whether it’s throwing the ball away or taking a sack instead of forcing a throw, Smith is a very intelligent quarterback. So why did he not make the intelligent decision and slide?
Instead of sliding away from contact, he turned into Jo-Lonn Dunbar. That one mental error may have cost him his full-time starting job in San Francisco.
(EDIT: Some of you have responded saying that it was the QB sneak that injured Smith. I believe the side effects from Dunbar’s hit started showing after the QB sneak. Dunbar’s hit concussed Smith. Here’s what Harbaugh said after the game.
“He said he had the blurred vision after the quarterback sneak. There’s no telling. Did that earlier hit contribute? I don’t know. I don’t know Alex knows for sure, either.”)
Some people have asked me why Smith didn’t hide his concussion on the sideline. I have never been concussed, but I am pretty sure you can’t hide something like that. Smith said he had blurred vision after the hit. If the coaches were looking through plays, not being able to see doesn’t help. Going onto the field with blurred vision and headaches is something you can’t hide. People will notice.
And even after any kind of hit near the head, the neurologists on the sidelines will check to make sure a player isn’t concussed. You can’t fool doctors. You can’t hide a concussion. The league has implemented a lot of new rules to prevent concussed players from playing until they are healthy to do so.
You can’t hide headaches, blurred vision or impaired speech. People will notice.
So this leads back to that hit from Dunbar. Had Smith been himself and slid away from contact, this “QB controversy” would not have happened. Smith would have continued to play and Kaepernick would remain as the backup.
But this also made me wonder why Smith did not do the smart thing. Could it be because the team was struggling against a bad Rams team and Smith wanted to make a big play? Or was it a combination of factors over the years?
Ever since Smith was drafted, he has been criticized for his ineffectiveness. Some of it wasn’t his fault, like the constant change in offensive coordinators. But Smith has had his share of poor play on the field. When Harbaugh arrived, Smith turned into this efficient quarterback that led the team to the NFC title game. His play was still criticized but for the first time, his stats showed that he can win.
The pressure was on entering this second year under Harbaugh and Smith had to lead the 49ers to their sixth Super Bowl win. So far, he had played well enough to win games, but it was still a defense-led group. Smith wasn’t the team’s offensive leader. Smith was still the “game manager” and maybe that was the reason why he didn’t slide. Maybe Smith was trying to rip that label off by doing something that isn’t who he is.
Harbaugh’s desire to bring in Kaepernick is no surprise. Harbaugh likely was preparing Kaepernick to have a serious chance to start next season but probably was hoping to give the second-year player as many opportunities to play in 2012. That Wild-Kap gimmick worked well early on this season but died later. Harbaugh was looking for another opportunity to play Kaepernick but was content with what he had for now.
I don’t think Harbaugh was looking for an injury to happen to give Kaepernick the shot, but that’s exactly what happened. Smith knew that he was on thin ice as the starter despite his 20 wins under Harbaugh in under two years. But Smith knew that his season was his only chance to prove his worth to the team. It was his chance to show that the 49ers should have invested more in him during the free agency period. This was it for Smith.
Did that mentality factor in subconsciously on that scramble? Did Smith feel the obligation to make a big play to secure his job? Instead, that play cost him his job.
The one thing that has kept Smith reliable, and efficient under Harbaugh was that he did not lose character in any circumstance. Smith has always been intelligent, level-headed and panic-free. The team always knew what to expect out of Smith.
But for the first time under Harbaugh, Smith was out of character. He didn’t slide when he normally would have. He didn’t take the safe, smart route like he did before. He might have decided to try to be someone he wasn’t. That one play, that one hit, that never should have happened did and Smith knows that he might have ultimately cost himself the starting job here in San Francisco.