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SAN FRANCISCO – In the heat of the moment, with Thursday night's tight NFC West showdown between two hard-hitting teams hanging in the balance, Jim Harbaugh made one telling decision that spoke to his feelings about two quarterbacks.
With six minutes remaining, his team held a four-point lead over the Seattle Seahawks and faced a third-and-7 in the red zone. At that pivotal juncture, the San Francisco 49ers' second-year coach seemed to experience more shrinkage than a windsurfer at nearby Candlestick Point.
Instead of trying to put away the Seahawks, Harbaugh green-lit a play from offensive coordinator Greg Roman that called for Alex Smith to run a quarterback draw through the middle of the line. The conservative call gained three yards, set up David Akers' 28-yard field goal and essentially dared Seattle's rookie quarterback, Russell Wilson, to launch a dramatic, end-of-game touchdown drive for the second consecutive week.
Harbaugh's strategy paid off: The Niners (5-2) kept Wilson from crossing his own 35-yard line the rest of the way and held on for a 13-6 victory over the Seahawks (4-3) and a half-game lead over the Arizona Cardinals (4-2) in the ultra-competitive NFC West.
However, as the 69,732 fans at Candlestick Park celebrated San Francisco's bounce-back victory following a dispiriting 26-3 home defeat to the New York Giants four days earlier, it was hard not to view the coach's move as a sign that he lacked faith in Smith. The embattled starter had thrown an end-zone interception to Brandon Browner on the team's previous fourth-quarter drive, continuing a recent slump.
Smith, who has endured far more trying moments during his eight-year career, didn't shy away from that implication when we spoke at his locker after the game.
"I mean, I get it," Smith told Y! Sports. "It was probably a little too far [to get the first down], and you're making it a one-touchdown lead [with the field goal]. Maybe you hit it and catch them off guard and get the first down."
As Smith continued, he seemed to talk himself into outright approval of the approach, saying, "I didn't mind the call. … I like it. I like the ball in my hands."
Whether Harbaugh feels similarly about the ball leaving Smith's right hand – especially against a terrific defense like Seattle's – is debatable.
After his three-interception debacle against the Giants, Smith played a cleaner game against the Seahawks, completing 14 of 23 passes for 140 yards with a third-quarter touchdown to go with his interception. He was sacked twice and didn't have a completion longer than 18 yards. Were it not for the efforts of halfback Frank Gore, who ran for 131 yards on 16 carries and caught five passes for 51 yards, the Niners might not have crossed midfield.
Wilson's numbers (9-of-23, 122 yards, no touchdowns, one interception) were even worse, though in fairness to the rookie, there were at least five blatant drops by his receivers. And while Harbaugh got away with playing it safe in this particular game, it's hard to envision his team as a bona fide Super Bowl contender if the quarterback isn't trusted to take a shot at the end zone when the opportunity presents itself.
In case you're dismissing this as pure media-driven negativity, consider the responses I got from two key 49ers offensive players in the locker room after the game.
"Sometimes it's like that," tight end Vernon Davis, who had zero catches, said when asked about the quarterback draw. "Of course everybody wants to make their mark and help the team win. We'll take what we can get."
Wideout Michael Crabtree (four catches, 31 yards) shook his head when I asked the same question.
"I don't want to talk about it, bro," he said. "Cause I know if I say something. … We won – you know what I mean? I can't say anything, because we won."
Crabtree's right: Beating the Seahawks, a team crafted in the same image (suffocating defense, strong running attack) as the Niners, supersedes any larger concerns about the quarterback situation. Of course, until the Niners' Monday night road game against the Cardinals on Oct. 29.
"You can interpret it as you will," Roman said of his quarterback-draw call long after having left the stadium Thursday night. "Alex is still working his way back into form [from a sprained middle finger on his throwing hand suffered in a 45-3 victory over the Buffalo Bills 11 days earlier], so we have to manufacture things in the meantime. The thing about it is, we're all about winning. We don't get caught up in statistics or the other b.s."
One valid question is whether the semi-regular use of backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick as a mobile, change-of-pace threat has negatively impacted Smith's performance. After using Kaepernick extensively against the Giants, Harbaugh conceded to reporters last week that he was concerned about breaking Smith's flow.
Kaepernick took the field for only one snap Thursday, losing a yard on a quarterback keeper to set up third-and-goal at the 7 early in the fourth quarter. Smith reentered, slid to his left and tried to slip a pass through coverage to veteran receiver Randy Moss in the back of the end zone, but Browner stepped in front for the easy, drive-killing pick.
When I asked Smith if his periodic trips to the sideline during drives have become problematic, he replied, "I'll say this: It's fun to come in when it's first down. It's not fun to come back in when it's third-and-long. In hindsight, it's easy to say [it's a mistake]. But it's also been very effective for us at times."
Said Davis: "I don't think it messes with anybody's flow, as long as we get in a rhythm early. But if we can't get in a rhythm, it doesn't mess up my flow, but maybe it does for Alex."
This is not to suggest that Smith is trying to create an excuse for having thrown the interception.
"I'm just kicking myself," he said. "I'm just so pissed. I take a lot of pride in [not turning it over]. Dude, I just saw Randy in the back, and Brandon's so big – it's not like it's a little guy – and I didn't see him. I let it go and as soon as I did I thought, 'Oh no.' "
Whether Harbaugh has thought about pulling Smith for Kaepernick on a wholesale basis is another valid question, though for now it appears to be more a product of fan-driven chatter than an immediate possibility.
Harbaugh, a longtime NFL quarterback, defended Smith in his news conference after the game for trying to find Moss in the back of the end zone, saying he "would have made the same decision as he made to throw it." The coach said he "thought Alex had a very good game, made really good decisions. He was fantastic for us all night. Really had a perfect game in the running game, and did a great job getting us into the right play. Played with a lot of poise … made some conversions for us … and thought he played extremely well."
That praise may be a tad exaggerated, but when is Harbaugh not over-the-top? Remember, this is a coach who actively pursued Peyton Manning after last season, then denied that the 49ers went after him and described insinuations otherwise as "diabolical."
Asked directly whether the prospect of a quarterback change was merely a product of fan and media speculation or something rooted in reality, Roman replied, "It's whatever people want it to be. He's our starter, and we won the game against a good team. People better watch out when they play Seattle. If people underestimate them, they're making a big mistake.
"Two weeks ago, we set an NFL record for production. We're always searching for high-level play, but it's week-to-week. This week, we won, and that's all we care about."
For what it's worth, Roman – who is one of the league's more creative play-callers – fully expected Smith to get the seven yards needed for a first down on the quarterback draw from the Seahawks' 13.
"I really thought they would play Tampa-2 coverage, and they did, and I thought we could pop it," Roman said. "I really thought it would be wide open, but one of their defensive linemen [Clinton McDonald] pushed up and beat our lineman and stuffed the play."
Given that the Niners won the game, it's highly unlikely that Smith will get sacked – or, more accurately, demoted – by Harbaugh. Were it to happen now, it would not be a popular move in the locker room.
"What quarterback controversy?" tackle Joe Staley said. "There's no quarterback controversy."
Said Smith: "Being in the building, I feel so good about what's going on and the way our coaches communicate. Everything's being told to me straight. There's no funny business. And I really feel like, if anything was going on, I'd know about it before anyone outside the building."
On Thursday, Smith knew that at a key moment, Harbaugh preferred to take the ball out of his hands and put it in Wilson's. On a balmy mid-October night in San Francisco, it was tough to argue with that philosophy.
Whether it can work for the Niners come December and January remains to be seen.
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