Alex Smith has been more than a game manager this season.
Well, it’s finally happened. Alex Smith has gotten hurt, and the words “quarterback controversy” have immediately started swirling throughout the Bay Area. While it didn’t happen how most 49ers fans expected, the door is now ajar for Colin Kaepernick.
If you scour enough 49ers message boards, the call for Colin has been loud by some. And while Kaepernick performed admirably and didn’t lose (or win) the game against the Rams on Sunday, the job should still be Smith’s to lose.
Most of the angst towards Smith is misguided. San Francisco fans have found it difficult to put Smith’s early career struggles behind them. Many of them still see the quarterback who would throw untimely interceptions or take a sack and proceed to lose the football, only to watch the opposing team return it for a touchdown. But the reality is that Smith, under the tutelage of Jim Harbaugh, has become much more than the dreaded title of “game manager.”
Under Harbaugh, Smith has posted a record of 19-5 in two seasons. In his first six seasons, the eight-year veteran managed only 19 wins. The former Utah product has also shown flashes of brilliance under Harbaugh, including last year’s masterful postseason performance against the Saints—something that even the most ardent Smith-supporters never saw coming.
Kaepernick, now in his second year, has shown glints of talent this season in limited playing time. The pistol formation has worked well for the 49ers at times, but in those situations, the former Nevada standout wasn’t asked to throw the ball.
Yesterday was his first chance at running offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s entire playbook, and while the stats tell one story (11-of-17 for 117 yards passing and eight rushes for 50 yards and a score), he missed some receivers running down the field uncovered and looked flustered when forced to stay in the pocket.
The injury comes at a particularly bad time for Smith, who was in a groove and building rapport with his receivers, especially Michael Crabtree. Over the last game and a half, Smith was 25-of-27 for 304 yards and four touchdowns, and three of those TD passes were caught by Crabtree. His completion percentage on the season is now at 70.0, which is good for best in the NFL, and while he has far fewer attempts than most other starters, his yards per attempt now sits at 7.98, which is third behind only Josh Freeman and Peyton Manning.
Smith has worked hard to get into 49ers fans' good graces, and some still don’t give him the respect he deserves. His last two games now have him as the third-highest rated quarterback in the NFL behind Peyton Manning—who was courted by the 49ers in the offseason—and Aaron Rodgers. Not only that, but he’s currently on pace to surpass previous career-highs in passing yards and touchdowns.
Harbaugh mentioned on Monday that Smith would see a neurologist and move accordingly from there. With the NFL tightening rules about players playing after concussions, Smith could possibly be out for Monday’s pivotal game against the Chicago Bears, who are dealing with their own concussed quarterback.
If he’s able to play, there’s little doubt that Harbaugh would start him and relegate Kaepernick back to his spot on the bench. If not, many 49ers fans, who on Sunday thought to themselves, “Well, we’ll get to see what Kaepernick’s got," might just get what they have been asking for.