The 49ers are saying that Alex Smith is their starting quarterback, and he will likely start against the Bears Monday night at Candlestick Park despite sustaining a concussion in the 24-24 tie against the Rams.
Smith threw passes in Wednesday's practice while wearing a black jersey, which indicates he's a non-contact player. The final step for Smith is to engage in some sort of contact before he can be cleared for Monday night's game.
Nevertheless, the play of backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick has inflamed opinion on sports talk radio and his performance did not go unnoticed by the team. Summoned in the second quarter after a dazed Smith complained of blurred vision, Kaepernick completed 11 of 17 passes for 117 yards. He also provided 66 yards on eight carries including a 7-yard fourth-quarter touchdown.
What Kaepernick provides is an explosive element to a mundane albeit effective offense. He also throws the ball deeper more consistently than Smith.
Before exiting, Smith was again efficient, completing seven of eight passes for 72 yards and a 14-yard touchdown to wide receiver Michael Crabtree. However, only one of those passes traveled over 10 yards. On the season, according to NFL Films, Smith has thrown only 18 passes that have traveled over 20 yards in the air.
Enter Kaepernick, who went through a stretch of completing three straight passes that traveled 16 yards, 13 yards and 17 yards in the air. On most of those throws, Kaepernick had a player open short but tried the more difficult throw down the field. He was also under heavy duress, as was Smith.
"It was a positive the way Colin handled himself," coach Jim Harbaugh observed. "He was confident. He was not scared."
That might be Kaepernick's greatest strength. Just a second-year player, Kaepernick has not had his confidence systemically dismantled by two head coaches. Smith went through a public thrashing by his two prior coaches, Mike Nolan, who questioned his toughness, and Mike Singletary, who questioned his leadership and ability. When Harbaugh was hired, his task was to rebuild Smith's confidence, which he has done by being an unfailing supporter.
Perhaps still riding a high from his abundantly successful days at Nevada, Kaepernick seems to possess an innate confidence, although he's careful not to step on Smith.
"I feel I have the ability to lead this offense," he said as rookie last season. "It's just a matter of when that time and opportunity comes."
However, Kaepernick is still raw and still has an elongated delivery, which allows defensive backs to make up space on his throws. While he threw forcefully from the pocket against St. Louis, he's still transitioning from Nevada's shotgun offense.
Against the Rams, he fumbled a snap that running back Frank Gore recovered. Kaepernick also needs greater pocket presence and he holds the ball too loosely. Against the Rams he was hit from behind after holding the ball too long and fumbled again. This time fullback Bruce Miller recovered.
For all those reasons, this is not the time to continue with Kaepernick if Smith is healthy. The Bears, who the 49ers face Monday night at Candlestick, lead the league with a whopping 25 turnovers created, which calls for the more conservative and experienced Smith to start.