Jim Harbaugh already gambled in going with Colin Kaepernick over Alex Smith on Sunday. He now has to decide whether to let his winnings ride, although it might not be long before the 49ers head coach realizes the best course of action would have been to avoid the table completely.
Kaepernick has shown in his two starts that he has the potential to be an electric player in the NFL. His combination of poise, instincts, mobility and a rocket arm has him labeled a “game-changer,” whereas Smith has always been dubbed a “game-manager.” When you consider that by itself, it’s hard to fault Harbaugh for going with the guy who has the ability to make the 49ers’ offense much more dynamic.
But in going with Kaepernick, Harbaugh is playing with fire. He’s changing much more than the guy taking the snaps. He’s changing the locker room status and the team’s makeup, which could ultimately hinder what had already been working for San Francisco.
It’s tough to visualize what long-term ramifications — whether good or bad — riding out the Kaepernick heater will have on the franchise, but given the 49ers’ status as perennial Super Bowl contenders prior to the current quarterback controversy, it’s hard to imagine why Harbaugh would want to add an unknown ingredient to an already successful formula. That’s especially true when the ingredient is a second-year quarterback with just 11 games and two starts to his credit.
Had Smith been struggling and costing San Francisco games, it’d be one thing for Harbaugh to ride the hot hand in an effort to evoke change. Instead, Smith was continuing to make strides in his second year under Harbaugh, and he did very little to warrant potentially losing his job. As mesmerizing as Kaepernick may be to watch right now, his style of play also runs the risk of mistakes — something that Smith has successfully limited the past two seasons.
The worst part of the whole Kaepernick-Smith debate is that Harbaugh is seemingly promoting the quarterback controversy by refusing to take a stance one way or the other. He was mum on the QB situation after the 49ers’ win over the Saints on Sunday, meaning we’re in store for at least another week of speculation. Sure, Harbaugh will be at the center of it all, but it also means the rest of the team will be forced to answer questions about the situation. That’s something that isn’t going to go anywhere as long as the week-to-week madness is in place.
Fortunately for the Niners, there hasn’t seemed to be any chemistry issues stemming from the QB circus. Yet.
While it’s not a foregone conclusion that players will start to take a stance, and the fact that they haven’t already is really a testament to the grasp Harbaugh has had on the locker room to this point, the potential for disaster is still very much there.
“When I look at Colin I see a great playmaker,” tight end Vernon Davis said after Sunday’s game. “I think Alex is still the man. In my heart I strongly believe that. You’ll know next week. I’m sure Harbaugh will make a nice decision, who he wants to go with.
“I’m sure Alex is still our guy.”
Davis is the same player who called Kaepernick “the man” after the young quarterback’s first victory over the Bears in Week 11, so while we probably shouldn’t read too much into either week’s postgame comments, it’s obvious he’s conflicted when it comes to picking and choosing his words. He’s not alone.
“It is a little weird just because me and Alex are BFFs,” left tackle Joe Staley said after Sunday’s game, according to ESPN.com. “For myself, it’s weird. But it’s a football business, so we go out there and play. We’re paid to play our position, paid to play well and paid to win. Whatever they do, that’s a coach’s decision and all that stuff.”
All that stuff. That’s what this thing has become — a whole lot of “stuff.” It hasn’t really become an “issue” because the Niners have won back-to-back games amidst the “stuff.” Things might not be so rosy once the 49ers experience a hiccup, though.
Prior to the quarterback controversy, the 49ers already looked like Super Bowl contenders, and it’s because they have perhaps the most daunting defense in the NFL. Smith might have still been more of a “game-manager” than a “game-changer,” but for San Francisco, it was working.
The Kaepernick era — if that’s the direction Harbaugh goes — might work, too. But do the rich really need to risk going broke just to become a little bit richer?