It's not a common story, but it's not unusual, either. A veteran quarterback, established in the locker room and on the field, signs a new contract as a team's seeming incumbent. Through injury or sheer performance, that established quarterback sees himself cast aside by a younger, lower-drafted quarterback who displays an unusual acumen for the game, and the potential to take his teammates and coaches to heights they've not seen before.
Of course, the story most in line with this narrative right now is the one that has Colin Kaepernick unseating Alex Smith as the San Francisco 49ers' starting quarterback through the foreseeable future. Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh announced that Wednesday, after Kaepernick unleashed a scary skill set in the team's 32-7 win over the Chicago Bears, and a follow-up win over the New Orleans Saints.
It's unknown how this would have played out had Smith not been concussed against the St. Louis Rams a few weeks back, but as it was when New York Jets defender Mo Lewis paved the way for Tom Brady by jostling Drew Bledsoe's internal organs in 2001, things happen. That alleged NFL code by which starters can't lose their jobs due to injury is as quaint and outdated as the single-bar facemask.
It wasn't the first time a surprise quarterback jumped up and bit a seeming sure thing this season -- in fact, it wasn't the first time it happened in the NFC West. In March, the Seattle Seahawks signed former Green Bay Packers backup Matt Flynn to a three-year, $19.5 million contract and penciled him in as the quarterback of the near future. They selected Wisconsin's Russell Wilson in the third round a month later, with the idea that Wilson would learn Seattle's offense over time.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the regular season. Flynn didn't play badly in minicamps and practices, but it was clear from Day 1 that Wilson had attributes Flynn didn't possess. The rookie outstripped the veteran in mobility, velocity, accuracy, and the most important thing a quarterback must possess -- the faith of his teammates. From the summer on, Seahawks players were telling me about Wilson's intangibles.
"When Russell's in there, we just feel like something good's going to happen," one player said.
When Harbaugh, who's as astute about these things as any coach in the league, takes the temperature of his team, he has to know that his guys believe in Kaepernick before he endorses the second-year player's potential over Smith's known production. Based on what Kaepernick's teammates are saying, that seems to be the case.
"It's no secret, bro — that dude can play ball," receiver Michael Crabtree told Yahoo's Mike Silver after the Bears game. "It was too much for them. Colin's a baller. That's one dude I know I don't have to worry about."
During the Saints game, NFL Films caught a telling exchange between receiver Randy Moss, who didn't catch a single pass in the win and still wanted to ensure that Kaepernick knew what he was accomplishing. When Kaepernick berated himself after an incompletion to Moss, the veteran told the second-year guy to keep his head up.
"Ain't nothing to be mad about," Moss said. "Hey, you've been waiting on your chance to shine, and you shined, dog ...Way to go! Proud! Man, smile! I'm talkin' about smile, bro. You had a heck of a game, man."
Moss also displayed his admiration for Kaepernick's game by executing a great seal block on Saints cornerback Jabari Greer when the quarterback ran for a touchdown.
Implied, though not stated, in Crabtree's quote is that there are some worrisome aspects to Smith's game. He's become a very efficient quarterback since he bottomed out through his first few NFL seasons after he was taken first overall in the 2005 NFL draft, but there seems to be a very definite sense as to what Smith is, and what Smith is not. As Wilson did with Flynn, Kaepernick showed in a very short time that he could create plays out of pressure, improvise out of read-option sets, pick apart defenses, and make stick throws into tight windows as well as the upper echelon.
For a team that was a couple of muffed punts away from the Super Bowl last season with Smith, and still went hard after Peyton Manning in the offseason, Kaepernick seems -- at least in the short term -- to be the answer to a lot of prayers in the Bay Area.
What Kaepernick must now do is what Wilson has done, especially in the last month -- take all those intangibles and produce in big moments, over and over. After Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll took the shackles off of his offense and let his rookie quarterback display those attributes, Wilson accomplished something no other first-year quarterback has done -- posted a quarterback rating of 125.0 or higher in three straight games. Per Football Outsiders' metrics, he's more efficient and productive than Andrew Luck, though he's thrown far fewer passes.
Before any of that happened, Carroll had to know that as safe a bet as Flynn might have seemed, Wilson had the players on his side. And that's the ultimate tiebreaker, no matter what coaches say in press conferences.
"Work ethic will always win your team over," Seahawks fullback Michael Robinson told me last week, when I asked him how Wilson took the team over. "When they see you working, and how much winning means to you, that will always win a team over. And Russell definitely came straight in -- first guy in the building on the morning, last guy out in the evening. And you could tell that it meant something to him. It wasn't just football."
And when did Robinson know that Wilson had the gig?
"When they let him start his first preseason game. I said, 'It's over -- he's got it.' I just felt like once he got his chance to really be in there, he was going to show that he could make plays. And Pete's a guy who will always say, 'Show me what you can do.'"
Like Kaepernick, Wilson also has a serious baseball background, and Robinson believes that may have worked to Wilson's advantage. In every sense, he was able to act as if he'd been there before, even when he hadn't.
"I think the fact that he played pro sports before gave him a read on how to deal with other pro athletes," Robinson said. "When he walks in the huddle, and I've said this before, he just commands your respect. You want to listen to what comes out of his mouth, and it's not like that with a lot of guys. Why? I don't know. It's just a thing he has."
Receiver Sidney Rice agreed. "When he came in, I always knew that he had the right attitude and work ethic for it," Rice said of his new starting signal-caller. "You could tell that as soon as he got here. He was one of the only guys to stay here throughout the whole offseason. And I would bet my last dollar that he was in here every day. Studying the playbook, watching film, and just trying to gain that edge. His 'want-to' -- you can see it every time he's on the field. His will to get the extra yards, to pull the ball down and scramble and try to make something happen. We knew from the beginning that he was capable of playing."
More than his capabilities, though, it was the little things Wilson brought to the locker room, the practice field, and gameday. Players know who has "it" at the quarterback position, and as Rice told me, coaches have to pick up on that.
"I'm pretty sure they do. You always want to have someone that everybody believes in, and that's not to say we don't believe in Flynn. He knows the playbook, and he's a true professional. But Russell has ... it's hard to pinpoint. For me, I'm just going to go with his 'want-to' -- that's all you can say it is. If you watch the way he carries himself, the way he studies, all the film watches, and the things he does to try and get better, you can't go with anything else."
Now, the Seahawks most certainly can't -- nor would they want to. And by all indications, the 49ers won't have to, either.