Even as Alex Smith takes the first snap for the 49ers Monday night in Chicago, the debate over who should be the starting quarterback is far from over. In fact, that is not even the big question for a team that wants more than a mere starter. What the 49ers are seeking is the next franchise quarterback.
Following a week where a concussion led to discussion, if not controversy, Smith is expected to start Monday night against Chicago while second-year backup Colin Kaepernick is poised to step in if needed.
After Smith was concussed last week against the St. Louis Rams, Kaepernick entered the game with the 49ers trailing, 14-7. After a slow start, Kaepernick found his rhythm and connected on 11 of 17 passes for 117 yards and demonstrated his considerable running ability with another 66 yards and a touchdown.
Although the 49ers managed only a 24-24 overtime tie, the predictable quarterback controversy chatter dominated Bay Area sports talk shows and other media while Smith's condition improved slowly during the week. He was given the green light on Thursday to gradually get back into action.
But discussions still linger, although not with the intensity of the famous Joe Montana v. Steve Young debates of the 1980s. And that missing passion and commitment in these discussions is a clue to whether the answer this time is either Smith or Kaepernick.
That answer might be neither.
Using history as a guide, the goal of the 49ers and coach Jim Harbaugh is to find a franchise quarterback.
Smith, the team's No. 1 pick in 2005, surely deserves some medal of honor for doing as well as he has while enduring seven different offensive coordinators. But nobody seems willing to anoint him as a franchise quarterback. He seems more like the best available place-holder at this time.
And in his brief appearances, Kaepernick expanded the dynamics of the 49ers' offense with his exceptional running skills. But, despite a strong arm for deep passes, his lack of poise in the pocket and inconsistency hitting targets must improve if he wants to be a starter.
Harbaugh, considered an expert on quarterbacks, probably thought that very thing when he traded three draft picks (Nos. 45, 108 and 141) to move up and take Kaepernick in the second round of the 2011 draft (36th overall).
And regardless of how he invoked some Orwellian explanation for his actions, Harbaugh went out of his way earlier this year to show an interest in free agent quarterback Peyton Manning, whose feelings apparently were not mutual. But had Manning felt otherwise, it is not a stretch to imagine Manning as the 49ers starter with Kaepernick learning from the master as the team's quarterback of the future, leaving Smith as either trade bait or the reliable journeyman backup.
Smith probably had that very vision when, while Harbaugh seemed to be courting Manning, he flew to Miami to discuss playing quarterback for the Dolphins.
The 49ers have one of the most talented overall rosters in the NFL, including a defense that is arguably the best in the league, despite some recent lapses when their tackling was uncharacteristically inconsistent. Harbaugh has done an outstanding job infusing more talent each year, so the 49ers' window of opportunity to win a Super Bowl still appears wide open.
However, with the teams' high-tech stadium in Santa Clara on schedule to open in 2014, there is little doubt that 49ers' CEO Jed York will settle for anything less than the best possible team for the debut there. York has made it clear his passion for winning is very much like that of his uncle and Godfather, Eddie DeBartolo, whose powerful leadership was a key factor to the franchise's six Super Bowl championships.
In 2010, when San Francisco began 0-5, York wrote a letter to the media that insisted the 49ers would win their division and make the playoffs. They finished one game out of the playoffs that year, but after hiring Harbaugh last year, the 49ers made it to the NFC Championship game before being knocked out, 20-17, in overtime to the New York Giants.
While the headlines of history will blare that the game was lost on two punt return turnovers by Kyle Williams, even Smith noted that the real story may have been elsewhere. "It's not on him," said Smith of Williams. "I look at the one-for-13 on third downs."
That pathetic statistic reflected the fact that Smith, who hit 12 of 26 passes for 196 yards, completed only one pass to a wide receiver, good for three yards to Michael Crabtree. So it was no coincidence that 49ers went out and signed veteran wide receivers Randy Moss and Mario Manningham and used the first pick in the draft (No. 30 overall) on a surprise selection, wide receiver A. J. Jenkins from Illinois.
Against that background it would be folly to believe the 49ers will remain satisfied with the mere journeyman excellence of Smith if there is a chance to plug in a better player. Harbaugh's harbinger of such a change may have been his visit with Manning, or the numerous times he has plugged Kaepernick into the game this season when the outcome was still on the line, often in the red zone where the 49ers bogged down too often last year.
So even if Smith recovers from his concussion and takes that first snap against the Bears Monday night, the long-term quarterback situation for the 49ers is far from settled. If Kaepernick makes the best of his chances, he is in a position to be the starter when the 49ers move into their new home. If not, Harbaugh and York will continue their search for the 49ers next franchise quarterback.