Way back in 2006, the Denver Broncos jumped out to a 7-2 start behind Head Coach Mike Shanahan and veteran quarterback Jake Plummer. “Jake the Snake” was no world-beater – he had led the league in interceptions twice, and topped 20 INTs five times – but he had earned a Pro Bowl berth just one season before. In 2005, Plummer had thrown for over 3300 yards and 18 touchdowns in leading Denver to a 13-3 record and playoff win over New England. But despite the team’s fortunate start, Plummer was having a lackluster 2006 season. So after two consecutive losses within the division, Shanahan pulled the plug on his starter, and inserted rookie first round pick Jay Cutler into the lineup. Unlike Kaepernick, Cutler’s first start was a mess, but the rookie displayed some promise during his five games at the helm. The problem was, the Broncos won just two of those games. They stumbled to a 9-7 record and lost out on the AFC’s final Wild Card spot to the division-rival Kansas City Chiefs.
If Smith is about to play the role of Plummer in San Francisco’s remake of the 2006 Broncos season, he appears to be overqualified. The 28-year old former number one overall draft pick had led the Niners to a 6-2-1 record prior to Monday night’s game. Outside of a brutal, three-interception loss to the New York Giants, Smith had provided the same steady leadership that he had displayed during the team’s 13-3 2011 season. Like Plummer in ’05, Smith had taken his team to the conference championship game. But in contrast to 2006 Jake Plummer, Smith hasn’t regressed. In fact, he actually seems to be improving this season. Just three weeks ago, in a win over Arizona, Smith came one pass attempt shy of setting the single-game record for accuracy. He went 18 for 19 that night, with three touchdowns and no interceptions. Against St. Louis in Week 10, Smith was seven for eight passing before exiting with a head injury. The guy is 25 for 27 passing in his last six and a half quarters of work. The hot hand? Nobody’s hand is hotter right now than a healthy Alex Smith. Is he about to lose his job to an inexperienced backup with one flashy win under his belt? Because of a concussion?
It’s possible that Harbaugh believes that Kaepernick gives the 49ers a dimension they lack with Smith at the controls. There’s no question Kaepernick is a phenomenal athlete. Aside from a cannon arm, he has legit 4.5 second speed in the 40 yard dash. During his college career he passed for over 10,000 yards and rushed for over 4000 more. His talents are valuable enough that the 49ers had found spots to work him into the game plan outside of relief and mop-up duty. Had Smith been healthy against the Bears, there’s still a good chance viewers would have been treated to a few plays worth of Kaepernick. Smith wasn’t ready, Kaepernick got the call and the legend began to write itself. The mere fact that people are interpreting Harbaugh’s quote to mean a change may be afoot shows just how exciting the young gun was in his first go around in the spotlight. But it’s one start. It needs some perspective.
Perhaps the greatest aspect of that risk is the potential damage it could do to the psyches of both San Francisco QBs. Smith’s ego was bruised during the free agency signing period when Harbaugh flirted with Peyton Manning. When it became apparent that Manning was going elsewhere, ultimately both coach and incumbent QB opted to “love the one they’re with” and collaborate on another run at the postseason. Fences were mended and Smith had been on his way to the best season of his career before the head injury. Benching a healthy Smith now will ruin any trust that’s been rebuilt since March. What happens if (when) Kaepernick lays a couple of eggs as all young quarterbacks do? What happens if the 7-2-1 Niners, who lead the 6-4 Seahawks atop the NFC West, start to slip like the 2006 Broncos? At what point would Harbaugh be forced to go back to Smith? How would that impact the locker room? There is no telling. With upcoming games against the streaking Saints and the high-flying Patriots, and three games left in the division, it hardly seems like the time to get cute.
The guess here is that Jim Harbaugh knows this. He’s hit the ground running and is 21-6-1 (including playoffs) as an NFL Head Coach. He didn’t turn these 49ers around by making rash decisions based on one game. Harbaugh did however turn this team around with Alex Smith as his quarterback; and, up until last week, it was Smith seeing the vast majority of practice reps as the starter. Once he’s healthy, he’ll resume that role. He has simply been too successful to lose his job like this. Kaepernick’s time is soon. Probably next season. But for now this is Smith’s team as long as he can play. Chances are, when Harbaugh was talking about the “hot hand”, he was simply acknowledging that both of his quarterbacks have taken care of business and deserve a little praise. That, and having a little fun with everybody else.