Jim Harbaugh's Dilemma: Making the Case for Colin Kaepernick over Alex Smith

Tyson LanglandNFC West Lead WriterNovember 20, 2012

August 20, 2011; San Francisco, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh (left) talks to quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) during the third quarter against the Oakland Raiders at Candlestick Park. The 49ers defeated the Raiders 17-3. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-US PRESSWIRE

When was the last time a first-place team with an NFC championship game appearance from the previous season had a quarterback controversy?

After last night's eye-opening performance from Colin Kaepernick, there's no way the 49ers can avoid the discussion of a quarterback controversy leading up to their Week 12 game against the Saints. Kaepernick was an impressive 16-of-23 for 243 yards and two touchdowns.

By breaking down his numbers even farther, it's easy to see he adds a new dimension to the 49ers—the deep passing game. Last night alone he threw four passes 20 yards or more, according to Pro Football Focus.

Of those four passes he completed, three completions went for 111 yards. When throwing to the left side of the field he was 1-of-2 for 22 yards. When throwing to the middle of the field he was a perfect 1-of-1 for 32 yards. And finally, when throwing to the right side of the field he was 1-of-1 for 57 yards.

No touchdown passes of 20 yards or more, but Kaepernick showed first-class arm strength—something Smith has lacked over the course of his eight-year career. If you look at his downfield accuracy from just this year you see Smith is 9-of-18 on throws of 20 yards or more. His nine completions have netted 293 yards, which equals out to 32.5 yards per completion—about five yards less than Kaep's ypg on downfield throws.

Obviously, keep in mind the sample size is low and it's almost not fair to compare the two players at this point considering Smith has started 75 games in his career compared to Kaepernick's one. However, when head coach Jim Harbaugh says he will go with the hot hand moving forward, it's a worthy debate to have.

So, let's take it one step further. Let's break down what made the second-year quarterback out of Nevada so impressive last night.

One of his most impressive throws came on his second throw of the game. The 49ers were in a three-tight end set with one wide receiver and one running back. Randy Moss is at left wide receiver spot and is being used primarily as a decoy on this play. He runs a nine route straight down the field to draw coverage underneath and over the top.

This in turn leaves Vernon Davis one-on-one against safety Major Wright. There were only two routes to choose from on this play, so Kaepernick knew he was going to Davis right from the beginning. The play-action pass froze the defenders for a split second and then boom—he throws a 23-yard strike down the left sideline.

In the screenshot above, look at the strong mechanics of Kaepernick. When he unloads the ball he is standing tall in the pocket with meticulously aligned feet that ensure the proper throw is being made in terms of accuracy. There's very little room for error on this throw as it needs to be tight along the sideline.

Tight along the sideline it was as Davis has a small chunk of real estate to work with to get his feet down in bounds. Yet the beauty of the throw is that Kaepernick put the ball in a position where only his player would have a shot at it. If the ball is under-thrown, the defender either knocks the ball away or picks it off.

On the second play of the game, he stands tall in the pocket with good footwork, shows a good release point on his throw and displays pinpoint ball placement. Not a bad way to start the opening drive.

However, his most impressive play of the night was his third quarter touchdown pass to Michael Crabtree. From the beginning, this play breaks down every which way; by the end, the 49ers have scored six, but it took four different reads to get there.

Kaepernick's first read is going to be the tight end Delanie Walker. He's looking to hit Walker on the quick out in the flat, so San Francisco can pick up six quick yards to keep the drive alive. Unfortunately, the Bears have the play well covered. 

So, he scans his eyes back to the left to see if No. 85 will have the opportunity to break open in the process of getting open. Like Walker, he is well covered over the middle of the field, so he moves on to his third option.

Wide receiver Mario Manningham proves to be his third look on this play. He is trying to run a slant route, but gets bumped off the line due to the tight coverage of cornerback Tim Jennings. With everyone being well covered, it's time to improvise.

While improvising, his final read becomes Crabtree. Crabtree is covered by Charles Tillman, but to get open he sucks Tillman in by running towards the middle of the end zone and then quickly shooting out to the back of the end zone, which ends up leaving him wide open.

It was nowhere near designed, yet the key was Kaepernick keeping his eyes downfield the entire time. At no one point did he watch the rush like Smith gets caught doing at times. An all around impressive play—great poise and pocket presence all throughout. 

Moreover, look at the way he resets his feet at the end. Great mechanics coupled with a big arm will take a young quarterback a long way. And it doesn't hurt playing behind an offensive line that gives you the time to improvise.

Moving forward, Coach Harbaugh has a big decision to make. He will have to weigh the options of both Smith and Kaepernick. Do you go with the guy who has won 20 games for the ball club over the course of the last two seasons, or do you go with the guy who is the future right now?

Smith's limitations are well documented and his ceiling has been reached. However, based on last night's performance, the sky is the limit for the 25-year old kid from Milwaukee. It's not like he is a rookie—he knows he is ready. Take a look at a tweet he sent out three weeks ago.

Bout to get this workout in because yall ain't goin keep me on this sideline forever!

— Colin Kaepernick (@Kaepernick7) October 30, 2012

Also take a moment to remember that Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman inherited Smith. They drafted Kaepernick.

By the breakdown of his numbers and his play, there's no question he should be the starting quarterback for the remainder of the season.


Follow @TysonNFL on Twitter