Ultimately, it's generally better to quickly pull the trigger as opposed to letting the situation linger when quarterbacks are involved. And while it's highly unlikely that Smith will be yanked by the time the 49ers (4-2) line up for Thursday night's NFC West matchup with the highly improved Seattle Seahawks (4-2), the switch could be coming soon if Kaepernick is ready – which is a question only Harbaugh and his staff can answer.
Harbaugh, who has worked Kaepernick more into the offense the past three weeks, should understand these dynamics all too well. From 1994 to 1997, he was Indianapolis' quarterback, replacing the talented-but-enigmatic Jeff George and leading the '95 Colts to the AFC championship game when everything fell right for the team.
Peyton Manning. Many in Indianapolis at the time questioned the wisdom of going with a young quarterback right away. Clearly, that decision worked out for the Colts.By 1998, however, the Colts discarded Harbaugh and drafted
Now you have Smith, himself coming off an NFC championship game appearance last season. After years of struggling, Smith has grown into an efficient player who appears better than a game manager, but not quite a game-changer. Kaepernick, by comparison, is electric, armed with a much stronger arm and much faster feet.
This is also a time when young quarterbacks are consistently showing they can take charge, and when having a great quarterback is a must. In other words, Harbaugh and the 49ers are a potentially great team at an extremely difficult crossroads. Do you play safe and stay with Smith or go for glory by playing Kaepernick?
That may explain the obvious tension in Harbaugh's answer this week when asked about why he's playing Kaepernick so much.
"We have been using Colin as an added weapon. We feel like we're getting plenty of everything from Alex Smith. We'll leave it there," said Harbaugh, using one of his telltale commands to stop the conversation.
Considering how much Harbaugh has used Kaepernick in recent weeks and the 49ers' pursuit of Manning in the offseason, it's clear that Harbaugh is considering a change.
Because what he sees with Smith is OK, but probably not good enough.
In the aftermath of last Sunday's loss to the New York Giants, Smith's limitations stand out. In three games against the Giants since the start of the 2011 season, Smith has gone from playing effectively in victory last season (19-of-30, 242 yards, one interception, one touchdown, two sacks) to having some difficulties in January's playoff loss (12-of-26, 196, zero interceptions, two TDs, three sacks) to getting dominated on Sunday (19-of-30, 200 yards, three interceptions, zero TDs, four sacks).
That's the definition of regression.
If you look at Smith's regular-season performance the past two seasons against 2011 playoff qualifiers, you see some strong positives (a 6-2 record, only six interceptions). You see enough running ability and decision-making to be OK, but not enough to avoid a bevy of bad plays (29 sacks). His average of 6.5 yards per pass attempt is OK, but hardly awe-inspiring.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, when guys like Brad Johnson, Trent Dilfer and previous unknown players like Tom Brady and Kurt Warner could come out of nowhere to lead teams to titles, Smith might be your guy.
But this is the era of larger-than-life passers. You better have a physically gifted guy like Aaron Rodgers, Eli Manning, Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger if you want to compete. Up against the likes of them, Smith doesn't look the part.
If you have seen Kaepernick run or throw, he shows glimpses of that. His arm is a cannon compared to Smith's and he can run with all but the likes of Robert Griffin III or Michael Vick. In fact, the 49ers' package of plays for Kaepernick is largely based on his running ability, giving him lots of option-type plays.
Kaepernick has the potential to be a star and if the 49ers are to take advantage of the rugged defense they have right now (and they better do that before guys like Justin Smith and Carlos Rogers get too old), you need to have a star at quarterback.
Harbaugh knows that from personal experience.
THURSDAY NIGHT HURDLE
Speaking of tonight's game, an interesting trend has developed during the Thursday night schedule (this excludes the afternoon Thanksgiving Day games). Home teams are dominating those games, including wins in 10 of the past 11 contests. In fact, home teams have won all but two of those 13 contests since the start of 2011 and 16 of the past 20 since November 2010.
In contrast, homes teams have won less than 60 percent of the time on other days since the start of the '11 campaign.
On the rare occasion road teams win these Thursday-night affairs, it's usually by an extremely high-caliber team. The defending Super Bowl-champion Giants won at Carolina this season and the defending AFC-champion Colts won at Tennessee in 2010.
This pattern has more than a few coaches ticked off by the league's continual push to market the game.
"It's going to get to the point that you treat it almost like an exhibition game," a team executive said. "Yeah, you want to win, but when the schedule comes out and you see you're on the road on Thursday, teams are going to get to the point that they say, 'We'll do our best, but let's focus on planning around it.' "
1. Atlanta Falcons (6-0): A tight game against Oakland? At home? This undefeated thing is tenuous, at best.
2. New York Giants (4-2): Owner John Mara loved the fact that his defensive line was written off last week.
3. Chicago Bears (4-1): Perhaps the biggest factor in the way of this team being special is whether it can stay healthy.
4. San Francisco 49ers (4-2): This is a potential championship team, but so much rides on the QB situation.
5. Houston Texans (5-1): Still the best of the AFC and should run for about 400 yards against 5-1 Baltimore.
28. Cleveland Browns (1-5): Good news, Browns fans: WR Josh Gordon also looks like the real deal along with T-Rich.
29. Oakland Raiders (1-4): Dear Dennis Allen, the reason you have Sebastian Janikowski is for 58-yard attempts, indoors.
30. Carolina Panthers (1-4): With two weeks to prepare for Dallas, Cam Newton and this defense better be ready.
31. Kansas City Chiefs (1-5): GM Scott Pioli would be wise to take advantage of the new, later trade deadline.
32. Jacksonville Jaguars (1-4): It's one thing to be bad. But when you can't score, either, that's a death sentence.
THIS AND THAT
• Great observation by Tom Rock of Newsday that explains the parity of the NFL very effectively. Over the past two weeks the following has happened: Green Bay beat Houston Sunday night. Houston beat the New York Jets the previous Monday. The Jets beat Indianapolis on Sunday. Indianapolis beat Green Bay the week before.
• •File this under odd trends: Since becoming the starter in Buffalo in 2010, Ryan Fitzpatrick has had 12 games in which he didn't throw an interception, comparable to many of the better quarterbacks in the NFL. But when Fitzpatrick throws a pick, he tends to throw them in bunches. In the other 23 games he has played in that time, he has 46 interceptions.
• Commissioner Roger Goodell exchanged text messages with Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis after news of Lewis' torn triceps. "I hope this motivates him to come back for one more year, I'd hate to see him go out like that," said Goodell, who earnestly called Lewis one of his favorite players in the league.
• Raiders owner Mark Davis very much wants to stay in Oakland and said Tuesday he's giving the city every chance to get something done on a new stadium. Davis also mentioned a spot in nearby Dublin (an affluent East Bay suburb) where a stadium could be built. Although many believe Davis will head to Los Angeles one day, he sounded earnest about his desire to stay in Northern California. Furthermore, there are a number of people in the NFL who are leery of the Raiders returning to Los Angeles under the current brand. The belief is that would lead to a return of the gang culture that surrounded the team in its previous L.A. incarnation.
• Memo to Seahawks defensive back Richard Sherman: Do yourself a favor and don't leave Seattle for a team that plays Tom Brady anytime soon.
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