Breaking Down Jim Harbaugh's Decision to Reportedly Start Colin Kaepernick

Joseph AkeleyAnalyst INovember 22, 2012

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - NOVEMBER 19:  Colin Kaepernick #7 of the San Francisco 49ers rolls out to pass against the Chicago Bears during the third quarter at Candlestick Park on November 19, 2012 in San Francisco, California. The 49ers won the game 32-7. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The San Francisco 49ers quarterback dilemma has become a nationwide debate, and both sides have several legitimate points.

According to Jim Trotter of Sports Illustrated, Jim Harbaugh has named Colin Kaepernick as the starter against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday. Trotter's source added that the decision is not health related.

Let the second-guessing begin.

Most fans on the Smith side of the debate start off by saying something like this: "Kaepernick has only started one game! Alex Smith nearly led the 49ers to the Super Bowl last year. Smith should start."

Sure, it was just one start, but it was the way he looked. Kaepernick had command of the offense. He didn't have any turnovers. In fact, he didn't throw one pass that was close to being picked off.

The biggest reason to keep Kaepernick on the bench was that Smith supposedly had a better command of the offense, the mark of an experienced quarterback.

Kaepernick apparently has a similar knowledge of the offense, and there's no reason to believe he'll regress in his understanding of it as he plays.

The second part of the pro-Smith argument revolves around his past success. Smith has a passer rating of 104.1 this year, third best in the NFL. He's 19-5-1 as a starter in the regular season since Harbaugh was hired as San Francisco's head coach.

Smith supporters are tired of marginalizing his success. "So what if he has a great defense and great running game?" they argue. "Smith just wins, and that's all that counts."

It's true that Smith is the "safe" option here. Harbaugh knows what he has in Smith; he's an efficient quarterback who rarely turns the ball over.

He's also more than just a "game manager." For example, Trent Dilfer averaged 6.6 yards per attempt in his Super Bowl season with the Baltimore Ravens. Smith is averaging 7.98 yards per attempt, third best in the league.

Harbaugh knows that with Smith, the 49ers could win the Super Bowl this year. For all intents and purposes, they outplayed the New York Giants in last year's NFC Championship Game, but they had two special teams turnovers that they couldn't overcome.

However, Smith's performance was a huge reason why the 49ers fell to the Giants.

Smith completed just 12-of-26 passes for 192 yards and two touchdowns. Mediocre numbers, to be sure. But the real killer was San Francisco's inability to convert on third downs. The 49ers were 1-of-13 on the money down. 

It's extremely difficult to win in the playoffs when your quarterback can't move the chains.

Smith played much better in his first career playoff game against the Saints, passing for 299 yards and three touchdowns and running for another. He showed poise by leading the 49ers to two go-ahead touchdown drives in the final four minutes of the game.

Yet, even in that game, the 49ers were 4-of-15 on third downs. The 49ers converted 29.4 percent of their third downs in 2011 (second worst in the league), and they are up to 35.4 percent this year (21st in the league). 

Maybe not all of the third-down issues are Smith's fault (some sketchy offensive line play has played a role), but anybody would tell you to consider looking for a better quarterback option with those mediocre numbers.

Also, not included in the passer rating stat is sacks, and Smith takes a lot of them

Even with Smith's weaknesses, the 49ers' blueprint for success was and is working. But just because it's working doesn't mean it can't be better with Kaepernick.

Remember, Kaepernick isn't being asked to throw for 300 yards per game. All he needs to do is take care of the ball and complete a high percentage of his passes, which he's shown he can do so far.

There's a chance that Kaepernick scuffles mightily in the upcoming games, that he was simply a one-hit, Monday Night Football wonder. 

But what if he's a budding star with the ability to lead the 49ers offense to a new high?

Harbaugh wants to find out, and I don't blame him for his curiosity. 

Besides, experience can be so overrated in professional sports. Rookie Robert Griffin III is having an incredible season. He's a top-five quarterback in the league this year. 

Kaepernick may not be RGIII, but the ex-Nevada star certainly has a more intriguing skill set than Smith.

And it's not like Smith is a battle-tested playoff veteran. He's 1-1 in his playoff career. There's no reason to believe that he'd be markedly better or worse than Kaepernick in a playoff game.

Kaepernick has started just one game, and there's no guarantee that he'll continue to shine, but I'd argue that Smith, who was mediocre in games against the Giants, Seattle Seahawks and Minnesota Vikings this season, provides no guarantee either.

Smith supporters may argue: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Harbaugh would likely answer with something like this: "It may not be broke, but it could be better."

At this point, I think Harbaugh believes Kaepernick simply gives the 49ers the best chance to win, and it's hard to argue with that logic.


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