Stage right: Enter starry-eyed Alex Smith, Quarterback, University of Utah. After weeks of mock drafts charting California University superstar quarterback Aaron Rodgers as San Francisco’s future number one pick, the 49ers defy the experts and select Smith to lead the charge. He shakes the hand of then NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, and holds up his jersey embroidered with his name and the number one. He then raises his hand, palm outward and fist clenched, minus his pointer finger, which is extended straight up to mirror the number on his jersey.
The curtain closes to a robust applause from the crowd.
After a brief intermission, the curtain opens again to a sharp change of scenery. It’s eight years later, and second year Nevada product Colin Kaepernick has lead the 49ers in two consecutive victories against two stout opponents in his first two starts of his career.
Alex Smith stands, helmet on, in the shadow of the of the backdrop.
The spotlight shifts from Colin to Jim Harbaugh, standing in a make-shift press conference room somewhere outside the practice facility. The wind whips the backdrop around and Harbaugh announces Kaepernick, not Smith, will be the starting quarterback against the Rams next Sunday.
If you, like the made-up crowd in this fictitious theatrical venue, are confused as to what happened behind the scenes that led to such a dramatic change in casting, you aren’t alone. After all, wasn’t this the Alex Smith that just one season ago led the 49ers to a 13-3 record, and if not for a pair of untimely fumbles, a possible Super Bowl appearance?
And the Alex Smith who lead the 49ers to a 6-2 record before sustaining a concussion in the game against the St. Louis Rams which ended in a gut-wrenching tie? Surely such a minor injury would not cost him the starting job on the team he gave his heart and soul to ever since he took the field in 2005. Despite seven coordinators in just as many seasons, numerous trips to the bench in favor of second and third rate quarterbacks such as Tim Rattay, J.T. O’ Sullivan and Shaun Hill, and most recently, sat and waited while the 49ers courted the legend Peyton Manning.
Through all the adversity, Alex Smith never spoke poorly or acted out against the San Francisco 49ers organization, and most importantly, never quit on the team. The only remote sign of interest he showed in another team, was when he travelled to Miami to talk with the Dolphins, but, this was merely a back-up plan in case Manning decided to sign with the 49ers.
We are watching the unfolding of a Shakespearean-like tragedy, only there will be no curtain call for Alex Smith. And, with the latest press conference held by Jim Harbaugh, we have officially witnessed the death of Smith’s starting role in San Francisco.
But, why? Why now? Why not wait until the end of the season to see how the future unfolds? He’s 25 of 27 passing with over 300 yards and 4 touchdowns in his past two games, and has the highest quarterback completion percentage in the league.
There are many reasons, but we will start with the most important.
The 49ers with Smith under center are great. The 49ers with Kaepernick under center could be elite.
This fits right in with the statement, Alex Smith didn’t lose the job, but Colin Kaepernick won it. While it is unfair to say Kaepernick is everything Smith is not, Colin holds the unprecedented advantage.
While they both can run, Kaepernick is faster and provides a whole new dynamic to the 49ers offense. San Francisco can use designed quarterback runs and option reads with higher success rates and greater frequency, leading to a higher possibility of Kaepernick breaking into the open field and turning a second-and-long into a first and ten or more. His ability to move around in the pocket and run vertically as well as horizontally means there is one less defender committed to Gore in the backfield.
The most obvious benefit of having a dual-threat quarterback, is the fact that defenses have to respect his ability to run, which opens up the passing game, which is an aspect the 49ers have not fully capitalized on this season. With the acquisitions of Mario Manningham and future hall-of-famer Randy Moss in addition to the emerging Michael Crabtree and elite tight end Vernon Davis, many thought the 49ers would change their run first philosophy. However, this has not been the case, and the reason is the man wearing the number 11 jersey.
Smith is an incredibly smart quarterback, yielding only 10 interceptions in his last 25 games. This stat is also one of the reasons he will be riding the bench the rest of the season, barring injury.
While intelligence is one of the key reasons his interceptions are so low, the bigger reason lies within the fact that he does not throw outside his comfort zone. That’s why Randy Moss has been essentially invisible this season, and why Davis’s productivity is at an all-time low. He doesn’t like throwing the ball into tight coverage, even when his man has space and can make a play for the ball, and he doesn’t air it out enough. Where as Kaepernick has a cannon for an arm and can fit the pigskin into any window he deems open. Kaepernick is also not afraid to throw downfield, which is a huge benefit to the 49ers speedy receiving core.
If you watched the post-game conference from the Bears-49ers game two weeks ago, you would have seen a beaming Vernon Davis announce to the world that Colin Kaepernick was the man. That’s because he saw eight targets and brought in six receptions for 83 yards and a touchdown, where in the previous three games he only managed seven targets for 64 yards. With those numbers, its not hard to imagine the ears of the San Francisco receiving core perked up a little bit when Kaepernick was announced as the starter.
To make the comparison a little easier for my friends in the midwest, imagine Alex Smith as Jim Tressel in his tenure at Ohio State, and Colin Kaepernick as Urban Meyer. Smith, much like Tressel, is a game manager. They are both methodical and get the job done efficiently, running short plays for positive yards with few turnovers, but ultimately both rely on the defense to win games.
Where as Kaepernick, like Meyer, takes chances, plays outside the lines and changes up the tempo to keep defenses on their toes. Just when the opponents think they know the gameplan, they open up a whole new play book and beat them into submission. Like Meyer, Kaepernick is exciting to watch at work, and gives the defense more breathing room by making plays with the intention to score, and not just gain field position.
Colin Kaepernick is the future of the 49ers organization. While it remains to be seen if he can continue to perform at such a high level of play, he has shown only a fraction of his capabilities in his two huge wins. Analysts are quick to point out Kaepernick does not have the experience to lead the 49ers deep into the playoffs, but keep in mind Smith has only played in two playoff games over his eight year career with the team.
Personally, I have always liked Alex Smith, and it’s hard not to if you are a devoted 49ers faithful. He never quit on the team and has shown his resiliency time and time again, through the bad and the ugly. In the good, he has been the epitome of a class act player and demonstrated his will to win every time he stepped on the field, and I sincerely believe if not for the fumbles the special teams unit gave away in the NFC championship game last year, we would have seen a 49ers Super Bowl victory, with Smith hoisting the trophy high above his head.
This is by no means the end of Alex Smith. There are many other teams who would love the services of an intelligent, experienced and gifted quarterback who truly never got his chance to shine over the Golden Gate, and we will surely see him on the field, guiding a new offense. It is also very probable we will see him again in Candlestick before the year is over, only this time it will be in a back-up role.
So take a bow, Alex Smith, you deserve it. Enjoy the applause from the fans who truly appreciate everything you’ve given us over the past eight years, and we wish you the best.
But there is a new star in San Francisco taking over the lead role in the born again 49ers offense, and right now, he’s approaching center stage.