When Bill Belichick stuck with Tom Brady as his starting quarterback in 2001 even after Drew Bledsoe was cleared to return from a collapsed lung, it wasn’t particularly controversial.
Though the New England Patriots coach had just signed Bledsoe in the offseason to a $100 million contract, he had eight Brady starts and Bledsoe’s 5-13 record to back the decision.
In 1974, Pittsburgh Steelers coach Chuck Noll benched an established starter in his prime, Terry Bradshaw, in favor of a talented backup, Joe Gilliam, to start the season. But even after Gilliam went 4-1-1, Noll went back on his decision after six games and won the Super Bowl with Bradshaw.
Similarly, Vince Lombardi benched Bart Starr, who went 4-0 to close the 1959 season, in favor of Lamar McHan to open 1960. Yet, despite Lombardi’s misgivings about Starr’s limitations, he rolled back the decision in the Green Bay Packers’ Week 4 game against Pittsburgh, and with Starr back at quarterback advanced to the NFL championship game.
Enter San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, who in midseason benched a starting quarterback with an excellent record and statistics for a more talented but younger player. Alex Smith’s concussion in the 49ers’ game against St. Louis on Nov. 11 gave second-year pro Colin Kaepernick his chance, and even when Smith was cleared to play, Harbaugh surprised many in NFL circles by risking his Super Bowl-contending team’s hopes on a second-year quarterback who’d started only one game.
“What (Harbaugh) did was against the grain and bold, and either courageous or stupid depending on how it turns out. Right?” said Dan Daly, a former Washington Times NFL reporter and historian who wrote the 2012 book, “The National Forgotten League: Entertaining Stories and Observations from Pro Football's First Fifty Years.”
Harbaugh’s unstated reason was clear. Though Smith took the 49ers to the NFC championship game last season and had them at 6-2 before his concussion in the first half against St. Louis, Harbaugh determined his team’s chances of winning the Super Bowl are better with the more talented Kaepernick. If the second-year pro wasn’t the better player in November, he would be by January.
In interviews this week, four scouts and assistant coaches from 49ers rivals in the NFC West Division all endorsed Harbaugh’s move, though to varying degrees.
The most convinced said there was no comparison between the quarterbacks.
“Absolutely,” the scout said of Harbaugh making the right call. “This kid adds more dimension. It’s like having two running backs in the backfield with (Frank) Gore and Kaepernick. The problem for the defense is you’re not going to stop the run against Gore 100 percent of the way, so you’re going to have to drop back in coverage and respect that. And as soon as you do that and everybody’s covered, this guy’s going to take off and run. He’s a much better athlete than Smith, a stronger arm than Smith, he’s more mobile than Smith.”
The most tepid of the four said he trusts the judgment of Harbaugh, a former NFL quarterback who had resurrected Smith’s career in 2011 and worked with both players every day for two seasons.
“If you knew nothing other than that Jim Harbaugh was the one making the decision, you’d have to assume it was the right move,” said the coach. “You have to.”
Unlike Noll’s benching of Bradshaw in ‘74 and Lombardi’s of Starr in ‘60, Harbaugh was right not to go back on his decision.
For all Smith had done in the last 1 1/2 seasons — a 19-5 regular-season record, advancing to the NFC championship game last year — he’s pedestrian. He’s on the good end of the spectrum of quarterbacks who win games by avoiding mistakes, but he still is a game manager, not a playmaker. There was reason to think he’s not good enough to get the 49ers over the hump and not only to the Super Bowl, but to win it.
Kaepernick, on the other hand, has a much higher ceiling. He doesn’t have to carry this defensive- and run-oriented team and probably can’t at this stage in his career. But he’s capable of making a play or two that Smith can’t and that might win a game, either by running or throwing.
Going into the game Smith was injured, the 49ers were 6-2, and his 102.1 passer rating ranked No. 4 in the NFL, behind only Peyton Manning (108.6), Aaron Rodgers (107.4) and Matt Ryan (102.1).
But passer rating isn’t everything, and Smith’s limitations hadn’t changed. Yards per pass attempt is one of the better single measures of a quarterback’s efficiency and throwing ability, and in 80 games, including 75 starts, Smith averaged 6.6 yards. In his 1 1/2 seasons with Harbaugh, it rises to 7.5 yards. But Kaepernick’s mark this season is 8.3 yards. For comparison, Aaron Rodgers’ is 8.1 yards, and in his MVP season of 2011 it was 9.2 yards.
Harbaugh also had Smith playing ultra safely. According to ProFootballFocus.com, Smith attempted only 18 passes that went 20 yards or more downfield in his 8 1/2 games this season, and completed nine for 293 yards. Kaepernick in 7 1/2 games attempted nearly twice as many, 33, and completed 19 for 595 yards.
Also, Smith last year was sacked a league-leading 44 times; this year, 24 times in 8 1/2games, a pace of 51 for the season, which would have tied for most in the league. Kaepernick was sacked 16 times in 7 1/2 games, which projects to 34 for the season.
Yes, taking care of the ball is huge, and Smith did it well. But quarterbacks also have to take calculated risks to beat the best defenses, and Smith wasn’t capable of doing that. He’s won with the 49ers by taking sacks, throwing short and relying on his run game and defense to win.
When Smith has tried to be a playmaker, he more often than not has lost. That’s why he had a 19-31 record and 72.1 rating before Harbaugh got to San Francisco.
Kaepernick, who ran the 40 in 4.53 seconds at the NFL scouting combine, can run the read option and scramble like Minnesota’s Joe Webb — Kaepernick has 415 yards rushing, a 6.6-yard average and five touchdowns. One scout said you have to see Kaepernick on the field to appreciate his combination of size (6-feet-4 1/2, 230 pounds) and speed.
“When you look at him on TV you’re thinking, ‘This guy looks like he’s 210, 220 pounds,’” the scout said. “Look at his upper body. He’s thick, he’s built. This guy is a man-child. When he runs you have to come tackle this guy. He’s the real deal. It will be a different ballgame than (the Packers faced) last week (against Minnesota’s Joe Webb).”
But Kaepernick also can and will throw the ball downfield, and under the coaching of Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman hasn’t been a risky decision maker. He’s thrown only three interceptions, and his interception percentage (1.4) actually is better than Smith’s (2.3) this season.
“He brings that extra dimension in that he can throw the ball like an NFL quarterback,” another scout said.
That isn’t to say Kaepernick doesn’t have issues.
His passer rating (98.3) is comparable to Smith’s, and the 49ers’ offensive production is similar: an average of 26.3 points and 357 yards in Kaepernick’s seven full games; 23.4 points and 369 yards in Smith’s full eight games. Kaepernick is 5-2, Smith 6-2.
But Kaepernick isn’t nearly as sophisticated reading defenses as the 28-year-old Smith, and since he’s taken over, the 49ers’ best playmaker, tight end Vernon Davis, has become a non-factor. Davis, who from 2009 through ‘11 ranked No. 5 in the NFL in touchdown receptions and No. 19 in receiving yards, has only 12 catches for 144 yards and one touchdown in the seven games Kaepernick started.
One of the aforementioned coaches said he’d give Kaepernick a heavy dose of zone coverages to complicate Kaepernick’s reads.
“If you play man to man, he can basically sit there and say, ‘OK, it’s man to man, I’ve got a (single-high safety) defense, he’s open, I’m going to throw it to that guy.’ Whereas if you play zone, it muddies the water for him a little bit. Teams probably went to a little more zone stuff later in the year.”
But one of the reasons to make Kaepernick the starter in November is that he could be significantly improved by the playoffs. Harbaugh had a bye week to review Kaepernick’s seven games as the starter and get him ready for the Packers.
“You know Harbaugh’s going to have something new for this one,” one of the scouts said.
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.