Even if Alex Smith takes the first snap for the San Francisco 49ers on Monday night in Chicago, the quarterback debate is far from over. This goes beyond who will be merely the team's starter. The 49ers are really seeking their next franchise quarterback.
Following a week in which his concussion led to discussion and the inevitable controversy, Smith, who returned to non-contact practice Thursday, can play against Chicago only if he passes a required impact test.
The when and how of this test were not announced, but this will be more than that pre-game ritual in which Coach Jim Harbaugh slaps Smith on the shoulder, chest and head. This is a serious test, administered and monitored by a combination of Jeff Ferguson, the teams' director of football operations and sports medicine, and possibly a league-appointed neurosurgeon. The result is compared to a baseline test from earlier in the year.
If Smith passes that test, he will be cleared to play. Offensive coordinator Greg Norman said Saturday that Smith "looked really sharp," while going through what could be described as a normal work week, or "thereabouts."
Still, if Smith passes that test, second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick is poised to step in. In fact, Kaepernick may start even if Smith passes the test.
That would show that the 49ers are conducting their own test, and it wouldn't take a brain surgeon to figure out what it is all about.
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.
Even after Smith returned to practice, discussions still lingered, although not with the intensity of the famous Joe Montana v. Steve Young debates of the 1980s. That is because the duel between Smith and Kaepernick, whether real or imagined, is not being waged on that Hall of Fame level that the 49ers and their fans expect.
And several events over the past two years indicate that the goal of the 49ers and coach Harbaugh is to find that 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 lacked poise in the pocket and was inconsistent hitting targets, but he expanded the dynamics of the 49ers' offense with his strong arm and exceptional running skills.
Harbaugh, considered an expert on quarterbacks, probably saw 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 last spring, Harbaugh went out of his way 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 and Smith plying his trade in another city.
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 not settle for anything less than the best possible team for the debut there. York 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 five 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. After they finished one game out, the 49ers hired Harbaugh and the team made it to the NFC Championship Game last season before being knocked out, 20-17, in overtime by 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 after that game. "I look at the 1-for-13 on third downs."
That pathetic statistic reflected the fact that Smith, who hit 12 of 26 passes for 196 yards in that game, completed only one pass to a wide receiver, a three-yarder to Michael Crabtree. So it was no coincidence the 49ers 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 efficiency 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 season.
So even if Smith passes his concussion test and starts against the Bears, the long-term quarterback situation for the 49ers is far from settled. If Kaepernick makes the most of his opportunities, he is in a position to lead the 49ers when they move into their new home.
If not, Harbaugh and York will continue their search for the 49ers' next franchise quarterback.