Alex Smith: Incomplete
Smith started and handed the ball off in each of his five snaps. Coach Jim Harbaugh said he wanted Smith to “break a sweat,” but it’s doubtful Smith exerted himself enough to do that.
All in all, Smith had the best preseason of his career, completing 13-of-19 passes (68.4 percent) for 134 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. He had a QB rating of 123.6 and looks very comfortable and assured heading into the season.
Colin Kaepernick: A-
12-of-18, 158 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT, 1 carry for 7 yards
To illustrate how far Kaepernick has come in a year, he completed fewer than half (24-of-50) of his preseason pass attempts as a rookie, with no touchdowns and five interceptions and a QB rating of 23.9 He finished this preseason 25-of-39 (64.1 percent) with two touchdowns, no picks and a QB rating of 104.3.
Kaepernick had a couple of rough throws early, but looked more and more comfortable as the game went on, which was a microcosm of his preseason as a whole. As usual, he was at his most dangerous when he was rolling out, regardless of direction.
The second-year QB continued to show his maturity by drawing defenders to him on roll-outs and passing over and around them for moderate gains rather than trying to scramble for two yards and risking a big hit himself.
Kaepernick’s accuracy rolling left is a rare talent among quarterbacks, but more uncommon still is the lateral speed and acceleration for someone his size. On more than one occasion, he simply outraced a pressuring Chargers lineman and made something out of nothing.
Also, he has a rocket of an arm reminiscent of Eagles QB Michael Vick. His windup is a bit funky, but with a simple flick of his wrist the ball travels with impressive zip. One of his passes bounced off intended target Nathan Palmer’s shoulder pad with a thud and flew 10 yards backward in the air.
Both of Kaepernick’s touchdown passes were a bit improvisational, and that is where his strength lies.
It’s unlikely that the coaches would be comfortable giving him the whole playbook should something happen to Smith, but they’re smart enough to have packages that fit what he does well. It won’t be the least bit surprising if Kaepernick checks in for a couple of plays here and there during the regular season with rookie back LaMichael James to run zone-read plays.
Ironically, Kaepernick’s best drive against San Diego didn’t result in any points. In a two-minute drill before the half, he guided the offense from its own 3-yard-line to San Diego’s 29, running for one first down and completing 6-of-7 passes for 50 yards. But that drive ended when David Akers had a rare missed field goal.
Scott Tolzien: D-
3-of-8, 42 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT
In games against Minnesota and Denver, we could say Tolzien was unlucky, that his best throws were dropped and that he played better than his numbers showed. Against the Chargers, though, he flat-out stunk up the joint, missing receivers high and wide. He threw one interception right into the chest of a defensive lineman.
Tolzien is fortunate that the coaching staff values his work ethic, attitude and experience in the system because on merit he doesn’t deserve to be on the team over Johnson. However, he is younger, more of a fit in the No. 3 role and will make quite a bit less than Johnson, and those are all factors.
Coming into the game, Tolzien’s advantages over Johnson were supposed to be reading the defense and accuracy. But not only was he decidedly inaccurate, but he made poor decisions not only on his interception but also on a deep attempt to Chris Owusu, where he threw to a wide-open receiver two beats too late and allowed defenders to get back into the play.
It could be that Tolzien played so bad because he put pressure on himself to be lights out, thinking he had to outplay Johnson for a job, but that’s no excuse. Playing well under pressure is a part of the job.
Josh Johnson: A-
9-of-14, 125 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT, 5 carries for 50 yards
Johnson had by far the best game of his preseason, showing off his strong arm and fleet legs, but it was too little, too late for him as far as making the team. The coaching staff had already made up its mind.
This part is a bit speculative, but here’s my theory: Johnson was signed in the offseason as insurance in case either Smith or Kaepernick got injured in camp or preseason. He’s a guy who’s simply far too experienced and talented (heck, he could be the starter for the Arizona Cardinals next week) to be a No. 3, and it’s doubtful whether he’d be thrilled about that role.
Also, remember, Kaepernick was miserable last preseason. The coaching staff probably wanted a fallback plan in case the kid had another disastrous summer and didn’t look like he could handle the backup job.
Unfortunately for Johnson, Smith is perfectly healthy and Kaepernick indeed has shown quite a bit of development. My belief is that all along the idea for Johnson was that either he was going to be the backup or be cut. The No. 3 role was never on the table for him.