After San Francisco 49ers backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick put on quite the show against the Chicago Bears on Monday night, opening up the team's formerly conservative passing game with several accurate long throws, head coach Jim Harbaugh said that he would go with the "hot hand" from then on. Apparently, Harbaugh has now made that call.
According to Jim Trotter of SI.com, Harbaugh has informed starting quarterback Alex Smith that Kaepernick will start against the New Orleans Saints this Sunday. Trotter reported that Smith's health was not an issue, certainly implying that this is a performance-based decision.
Smith, out of the Bears game with a concussion suffered the previous Sunday in a 24-24 tie against the St. Louis Rams, had completed 70 percent of his passes this season and thrown 13 touchdowns to just five interceptions. He seemed to be the ultimate Harbaugh Efficiency Quarterback, just as he had been last season, when he helped the 49ers to a 13-3 record and put up the NFL's lowest interception rate.
But when Kaepernick completed 11 of 17 passes against the Rams and went off in a brilliant two-touchdown performance against Chicago's top-ranked defense in his first NFL start, the writing was on the wall. It was clear that Kaepernick could stretch San Francisco's passing offense in ways that Smith could not on a consistent basis. And as the only player in NCAA history to pass for more than 10,000 yards and rush for more than 4,000 yards, Kaepernick also added an entirely new dimension to the 49ers' complex run game. The Nevada alum was selected by the 49ers in the second round of the 2011 NFL Draft -- the first San Francisco draft presided over by Harbaugh.
Smith had not been cleared on Wednesday to return to practice, and Harbaugh answered questions about his quarterback situation in his usual testy style.
"People are probably drooling all over themselves because they have something to talk about," the coach said. "We'll let it play out. I wouldn't expect an announcement today or any timeline on that. We'll get that to you."
Harbaugh did, however, rate Kaepernick's first NFL start as an "A-plus-plus." Kaepernick's teammates seemed to agree after the Bears game.
"It's no secret, bro — that dude can play ball," receiver Michael Crabtree told Yahoo's Mike Silver. "It was too much for them. Colin's a baller. That's one dude I know I don't have to worry about."
Now, it will be up to the Saints' defense, currently ranked 31st in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics, to worry about him.
Many analysts also agree, though all will be interested to see what happens when defenses get more of a chance to adjust to the second-year quarterback's unique style and elongated throwing motion.
"I think clearly Colin has gotten better mechanically," ESPN's Ron Jaworski said on a Tuesday media call. "He's got incredible natural ability, but he's got a ways to go as far as getting better, shortening his stroke, being more accurate with his throwing. I still think he has a lot of room for improvement, which is good, because he's pretty darn good right now.
"But he's far from a polished, finished product. Their offensive coordinator, Greg Roman, understands how quarterbacks should play, what their reads should be, and the lineage with Greg and Jim goes back to their Stanford days. But I think clearly Kaepernick's ability to get the ball down the field scares the hell out of defenses."
Smith, as he did when the 49ers pursued Peyton Manning in the offseason and went back to him as a last resort, handled the situation with class.
"If you can't be happy for your teammate's success, you're playing the wrong sport," he told the media on Wednesday, when asked if he'd have a problem supporting his teammate. "That's ridiculous, I think. That doesn't belong in team sports, in my opinion. It's the quarterback position. It gets a lot of attention. We're going to get talked about."
Now more than ever.