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Harbaugh makes right call going with Kaepernick

The SportsXchange

Regardless of his motives or how he minces words, 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh made the correct decision by naming Colin Kaepernick over Alex Smith as the starting quarterback right here, right now.

It may not lead to a more peaceful Thanksgiving Day among 49ers fans and media, who will now pick apart the call much as they did the pre-decision controversy. But that is the nature of fans and the media.

This decision needed to be made, not only for the sanctity befitting the position of starting quarterback for a franchise rich in history at that position, but for the sanity of a current 49ers team that may well be the most talented in the NFL.

And, perhaps most importantly at this time, for Smith himself, whether he appreciates it or not.

Surely Harbaugh realized Wednesday afternoon that despite his best Orwellian proclamations to the contrary, his "we are great with two hot-handed quarterbacks" scenario was going to remain divisive unless he did the right thing.

And, for now, regardless of whether Kaepernick or Smith becomes the quarterback of the future for the 49ers, naming Kaepernick the starter for Sunday's game in New Orleans is the right thing, whether it was for the health of the player or the team.

Harbaugh reportedly pointed to the latter.

Smith's health apparently is not Harbaugh's primary consideration, according to initial reports. And it might be noted those reports came well after Harbaugh's long and tortured explanations to the local media.

SI.com's Jim Trotter, who still lives in San Diego, where he covered the Chargers and Harbaugh for The Sports Xchange in 1999-2000, tweeted Wednesday night that "Jim Harbaugh has informed Alex Smith that Colin Kaepernick will start Sunday, per source. Said decision not based on health."

That was countered by a tweet from Seth Markman of ESPN, which relayed "Alex Smith just told @TDESPN that Harbaugh told him Kepernicks would get 1st team reps, but the door o pen to start game based on practice"

To which, Trotter responded, "i have great respect for @TDESPN and alex smith, and stand behind my report. harbaugh to alex: "I'm going with Kaepernick. Alex, I'm sorry."

Soon after, the Bay Area media began to respond, no doubt miffed after being strung along all Wednesday only to be upstaged by media from out of the area.

CSNBayArea.com's irascible Ray Ratto, who masterfully mixes acerbic wit and sardonic humor to present his perspective, seemed outraged by Harbaugh's decision.

Wrote Ratto: "Harbaugh has decided to roll the dice on Kaepernick, and if he's right, he has a Super Bowl trophy. . . . And if he's not, he has created a mess out of which he cannot gobble his way to an escape. Harbaugh chose to tell Smith Wednesday that he was going with Kaepernick in New Orleans and beyond, concussion clearance or no concussion clearance. He decided that a so-so game against St. Louis and a big game against Chicago was evidence enough to put his championship plans in the hands of a neophyte."

And, without stopping for a deep breath, Ratto re-engaged his pudgy fingers to declare:

"It is a gambler's move at a time when gambling isn't required. It is a move that declares the already shiny status quo to be null and void, and it is a move that tells every other player on the roster that yesterday's deeds do not equal today's hunch."

Despite Ratto's attempt to artfully play his favorite Grinch card, Harbaugh's decision, however misplayed with the local media, was, again, the right call at the right time.

First, in this era where even the slightest swapping of helmet paint draws league fines up to $50,000, Harbaugh and everybody else must respect that Smith is not yet all right. Either that or all this talk about player safety is just that, talk.

Smith apparently still is not 100 percent from the effects of a concussion during a Nov. 11 game at St. Louis. He was cleared to practice last week, but either didn't take or didn't pass an impact test that is part of the protocol to allow a concussed player to take part in a game. Vague reports keep hinting that he is expected to be cleared this week. But as Thanksgiving Day dawned there was no report that he had indeed been cleared.

Ratto may be correct, to a point. Smith was in the middle of perhaps his best season, No. 3 in the league with a 104.1 passer rating, No. 1 with 70 percent completion percentage -- numbers that belie the numbers on his contract, about $24 million over three years, which rates about 21st among NFL quarterbacks. Certainly his teammates noticed that long before Harbaugh named Kaepernick a starter, for now anyway.

Perhaps the real point is, if Kaepernick stumbles, the 49es may have a more healthy Smith ready to step back in. If he doesn't, then Ratto will entertain Bay Area fans with a new perspective.

But Smith is not healthy, not yet.

In a sport where emotions and egos often cloud judgment and reaction, perhaps only former 49ers star Steve Young, once part of a quarterback controversy himself, might totally appreciate this action. Young admitted he was in denial himself, despite or maybe because of, the eight concussions he endured before a ninth ended his career in 1999.

The compounded effects of those concussions impact Young even today. He pointed that out a few months ago while lamenting the sad suicide of former linebacking great Junior Seau, whose many concussions are questioned as a possible preamble to his shocking departure.

"We've also got to reach out to each other -- no more Junior Seaus," Young said. "We need to break through the tough, thick skin a lot of players have about it and help each other through it. I don't know how we're going to do it. . . . We just have to make the right decisions as best we can."

And for now, on this Thanksgiving Day, we can give thanks that Harbaugh has done that.
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