For the 49ers, the future is now — for now, at least.
An hour from now, though, that could all change, with head coach Jim Harbaugh opting to go back to what appeared to have been working quite well for the Niners under center most of the past two seasons.
The future is represented by second-year pro Colin Kaepernick, whose stunning coming-out party in his first pro start on a national stage against the Bears last Monday night set the stage for arguably pro football’s most intriguing story line at the season’s three-quarters pole.
After leading the Niners’ offense to scores in its first four possessions, throwing one beautiful pass after another and playing pristine, mistake-free football in a 32-7 rout against one of the league’s most highly regarded defenses, Kaepernick was named the team’s starting QB for a second consecutive week against the Saints Sunday. He kept up the good work in the Superdome, registering a 90.6 passer rating while both throwing and running for a TD in a 31-21 victory.
But, as was the case leading up to the Bears game, Harbaugh went right down to the wire before making a final decision between Kaepernick and Alex Smith, whose concussion suffered in the Week 10 tie against the Rams led to his benching, despite a 20-5-1 record in his last 26 starts, a league-leading 70 percent completion percentage in 2012, a 104.1 passer rating and 25 completions in his last 27 passes.
Starting the Wednesday before the Saints game, different rumors began totally confusing the issue. Shortly after Sports Illustrated reported that Kaepernick would start, ESPN’s Trent Dilfer was reportedly told by Smith, his old teammate, that Kaepernick would be getting first-team snaps, but that Smith could still start based on his performance in practice.
Then Harbaugh jacked up the intrigue by actually saying a “Kaepernick or Smith” debate could become a weekly occurrence moving forward, depending on which one is playing better at the time.
“It’s a unique situation to have two really good players,” Harbaugh said. “Could we (go week to week)? Yes, we could.”
On Friday, after Donte Whitner told the “Dan Patrick Show” that the Niners’ players were under the impression Kaepernick would start vs. the Saints, Harbaugh refused to confirm his starting strong safety’s declaration.
“It’s just not something we think is an advantage for us to talk about,” Harbaugh said. “And you may have your opinions on it. It’s unorthodox. So be it. You can call me names if you want, or make sport of me. But, that’s the way we’re going to go about it.”
In other words, as improbable as it might seem, the “Kaepersmith” mystery appears to have only just begun.
“It looks like Kaepernick is the guy for now, with the consensus being that the Niners are probably choosing to play it safe with Smith and give him another week to heal,” one veteran team insider told PFW. “But there’s so much contradictory information, it’s unbelievable!
“With Harbaugh, no one knows. There’s no way you can predict what he’ll do. I could see them jumping from quarterback to quarterback within every game.”
Both Smith and Niners offensive coordinator Greg Roman went on record in agreement with Harbaugh that having two quarterbacks with “hot hands” was a good problem to have.
Not surprisingly, though, there are more than a few daily “Kaepersmith” followers who believe Harbaugh is playing with fire.
“It is not a good problem to have at all,” the insider said. “They both need starter’s practice time. I know Alex does. Kaepernick, who came from a gimmick offense (University of Nevada), he needs, it, too.”
On NFL Network’s “NFL Access” show Sunday morning, likely future Hall of Fame QB Kurt Warner emphatically supported Smith.
“He doesn’t turn the ball over,” Warner said. “Week 12 of the season is not the time to be playing someone based on potential. I think (starting Kaepernick) is a mistake.”
Sources on the scene agree that few, if any, close observers actually saw the “problem” of choosing between Kaepernick and Smith coming.
“To be frank, I think he (Kaepernick) really surprised them (against the Bears),” the insider said. “Most of the time in the offseason, he was pretty bad. It was clear Smith was the best QB in training camp. It wasn’t even close. I don’t know if (Kaepernick) is just a real gamer, or if he actually has made some great strides this season, which is possible.
“He is just so athletic!”
With an absolute cannon for an arm (as a pitcher in high school, Kaepernick was throwing 94 mph fastballs), he provides the 49ers’ offense with a much greater vertical dimension, as evidenced by his six completions of at least 20 yards against the Bears.
“That’s where the rubber meets the road,” the insider said. “You know, the team set itself up to be able to go deep more, going out and getting (Randy) Moss and (Mario) Manningham, and with (TE Vernon) Davis already there. But Smith is uncomfortable throwing deep.”
Just how impressed are the Niners’ players with Kaepernick’s high-octane skill set?
“Well, you know they’re impressed when they said what he was doing was, ‘Tom Brady-like,’ ” the insider said. “I was told a long time ago that players will drop you in a hurry if another guy comes along with something special to offer, and that could be happening here.”
A veteran NFL talent evaluator told PFW that Kaepernick can make throws Smith would never think of even trying.
“He has that type of arm strength,” the evaluator said. “Kaepernick allows the Niners to go vertical and run the offense Jim Harbaugh would like to run.”
However, Kaepernick is hardly without flaws.
“He has a really elongated delivery, which could become problematic,” the insider said. “He also runs so high, real upright, and that could get him creamed. He’s a high-risk, high-reward guy, I’d say, and so far there’s only been high reward.
“But I personally don’t trust him.”
What most sources on the scene most definitely believe, though, is that Kaepernick has become more likely to be entrusted with the permanent starting QB job next season, with the Niners opting not to pay Smith the $8 million in bonus money that Fox’s Jay Glazer reported the quarterback is scheduled to receive two weeks after the season, thus allowing Smith to hit the free-agent market.
“The way you have to look at Kaepernick, like any other young quarterback that is playing, the disadvantage he has is that hasn’t got the same amount of reps as (passers) in last year’s class,” one pro personnel director said. “He has a strong arm, he is mobile — he just needs to play. He can make all the plays Alex does — all he needs is more time on the job.”
As for Smith possibly landing on his feet with another team, the verdict remains out.
“There was not a big market for Smith last year,” the talent evaluator said. “No one was willing to pay him more than San Francisco and it was clear they were looking for more (at the QB position) with their Peyton Manning pursuit. Someone will offer Smith a starting job — there is too much of a need around the league. Will anyone prepare him in the way that Harbaugh did or get as much out of him? No.
“I wouldn’t rule out Smith sticking in San Francisco and accepting his (backup) role, but he’ll have the opportunity to go somewhere else and start. He’s better than (Bills starting QB) Ryan Fitzpatrick, and look how he is getting paid. Someone will be overpaying for (Smith’s) services if they give him more than average starter money — that’s all he is and he was not even that before Harbaugh arrived. Look at it this way — if he’s starting for you, you know you still need to replace him. He’s not an ideal solution.”
Neither, our sources agree, is the potential for locker-room friction as the Kaepernick-Smith saga continues to unfold.
“In this case, I don’t think there will be problems,” the insider said. “They (Smith and Kaepernick) really seem to get along and like each other. And they seem very determined to not let this ruin the team. It’s completely different from the situation a few years back with (Joe) Montana and (Steve) Young, who just hated each other.
“These guys both seem sincere.”