Alex Smith vs. Colin Kaepernick: How Should 49ers Use Each QB?
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Allow the debate over Alex Smith vs. Colin Kaepernick to rage onward.
Smith delivered cookies to the neighborhood enemy in the form of three interceptions on Sunday. The Giants converted those picks into 13 points in their 26-3 win.
The 49ers starter also turned in a 43.1 rating and an even more disastrous 24.8 total QBR. He did not throw a touchdown pass.
It won’t be surprising if both fans and analysts alike throw Smith under the bus for this loss.
Some outside observers, on the other hand, will likely see Kaepernick as the young dynamic talent deserving a shot at the starting reigns.
Kaep completed 4-of-7 passes for 82 yards (11.7 average), highlighted by a 36-yard bullet to Mario Manningham. That pass set up a 52-yard try by David Akers at the end of the half. He also completed two 15-plus yard downfield passes in the fourth quarter.
(His near interception in the final frame must be acknowledged as well.)
Removing all subjective sentiment regarding these two players, how should the 49ers use each quarterback moving forward?
We can remove much of the suspense by saying that hell will freeze over before Jim Harbaugh removes Smith from the starting role.
Through the first five weeks of the 2012 season, Smith had owned the top mark for total QBR. He also led the NFL in passer rating with a noteworthy 108.7.
He orchestrated the 49ers offense to near maximum efficiency, especially after his 300-yard, three-touchdown and 99.2-QBR performance against the Bills just a week ago.
Now, there isn’t any denying that Smith took a substantial step back after his outing against the Giants. But that also doesn’t mean he deserves to be relegated to a backup role.
Smith was 4-for-6 on the 49ers first drive when Harbaugh took him out for Kaepernick on a 3rd-and-6 at the Giants 26. Just when Smith established momentum, San Francisco opted for a trick play that failed via an option-right to Gore for no gain.
Smith should have been left in the game to complete what he had started. It was much too early for Kaepernick to come in, especially on a third-down play inside Giants’ territory on the 49ers’ first potential scoring drive.
Case in point, Kaep did not see playing time at QB until mid-second quarter a week earlier. The 49ers had already established a rhythm and led 10-3 on a Smith 43-yard TD pass.
Plus, as the Bills matchup proved, Kaepernick is much more effective closer to the end zone and in a sparing role. From the 16-yard line in Buffalo territory, he utilized his other-worldly running abilities for a touchdown scamper in the fourth quarter.
At that point, Smith had already led the 49ers to a 31-3 lead. He personally accounted for three scores.
Smith also had proved himself in the early goings against the Giants, and should continue assuming the majority of plays moving forward.
His interception to tight end Delanie Walker at the start of the second was an errant throw—there isn’t any use denying that. That said, Smith made up for it two drives later with an accurate deep ball to Manningham that the receiver subsequently dropped (though it was a tough catch).
It would have set up San Francisco for a huge scoring opportunity when down by seven.
Kaepernick then proved his respective worth—and showed how he should be used—with a 36-yard bomb to Manningham with just 11 seconds left in the half. Akers missed the field goal, but the situation was perfect for Kaep to drive the 49ers down the field in limited time.
He is a vital weapon with his cannon of an arm when the 49ers have a long field and few seconds with which to operate. It was just before the end of the half, and the team didn’t have anything to lose.
By and large, though, Kaepernick should be used as a change-of-pace player where the option-read will have its most success. He functions best when dishing out to running backs or keeping it on the ground himself this early in his career.
He still has much to learn to man the starting role. Whereas Smith is a master of Harbaugh and Greg Roman’s highly complex playbook, Kaep only has command of the various sub-packages.
He cannot—most importantly—be continually subbed in and out; it’s simply too disruptive to the flow of the offense. There were multiple instances of this harmful dynamic in Sunday’s game.
After the Giants had extended the lead to 17-3 at the start of the third, Roman exchanged personnel on three consecutive plays. Smith began by handing the ball off to Hunter for a two-yard gain, followed by Kaepernick coming in the very next play for an option end-around to Manningham.
And on 3rd-and-1, Smith was back on the field.
In this unnecessarily convoluted series, Leonard Davis checked in as eligible and subsequently jumped early. Third-and-short quickly became 3rd-and-6, all of which disrupted the timing and helped cause Smith to throw his second interception.
The most detrimental series involving these back-to-back substitutions came at a critical juncture.
San Francisco had one last shot to bring the game closer in their favor. Down 23-3, Smith launched an absolute beauty to a streaking Randy Moss for 55 yards. It energized the crowd and gave the 49ers a spark as well.
But true to form, Kaepernick committed an egregious mistake by taking an unnecessary 11-yard sack on the following play after attempting to hand off to a phantom back.
First-and-10 and the Giants 29 turned into 2nd-and-21 at the 40. The coaching staff then awkwardly brought Smith on the field for a down-and-distance that he simply wouldn’t be able to overcome.
Who should be the 49ers starter in Week 6 and beyond?
The point is not to bash on either Smith or Kaepernick, but to highlight the ways in which the 49ers shot themselves in the foot time and again.
They were too cute with the assortment of sub-packages and personnel changes against the Giants in a marquee game. They went away from the run—which had been so successful up to this point—and implemented an imbalanced passing attack that catered towards the Giants’ lethal pass rush.
From here on out, the 49ers coaching staff must return to a balanced, turnover-free game plan where Smith feeds off Gore and the explosive running game. Kaepernick should certainly contribute with his running capabilities, but not on an every-other-play, every-drive basis.
They must utilize Kaep and the option-read as a new-look dynamic and only when appropriate with respect to the flow of the offense.
Smith’s three turnovers were unacceptable as much as they were an aberration—and certainly one that could have been avoided.
With that in mind, there must exist a productive synergy between Smith and Kaepernick. And right now, that amounts to Smith leading the charge for the majority of each game.
Kaep deserves his opportunities, but Smith gives the team the best chance to win—and it isn’t even close.
Clichéd coach’s speak always finds a way back into things, doesn’t it?
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