In back-to-back starts, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick showed the NFL that his upside is high enough to get the 49ers to the Super Bowl this season.
Sunday in St. Louis, he showed that the 49ers could just as easily be bounced out of the postseason without as much as a whimper.
It's the balancing act that 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh is willing to play in 2012, and given his announcement Monday that Kaepernick will start in Week 14 against the Miami Dolphins, the act is likely to remain go on as scheduled the rest of the season.
Harbaugh quickly put to bed any idea that former starter Alex Smith would be the team's quarterback Sunday. A day after losing in overtime to the St. Louis Rams, Harbaugh named Kaepernick his starter this week, according to the 49ers official Twitter page.
The announcement is the clearest and strongest sign yet that, barring injury, Kaepernick will be the 49ers starting quarterback for the remainder of the 2012 season. Going back to Smith now would start a game of musical chairs that no coach wants at the sport's most important position.
You really can't blame Harbaugh for making his decision, especially after Kaepernick was so brilliant in playoff-like wins over the Chicago Bears and New Orleans Saints in back-to-back weeks.
The second-year quarterback sliced and diced the Bears' vaunted defense for 243 yards and two scores in a 31-7 win on Monday Night Football, and then overcame an early interception to tally 258 total yards and two touchdowns in a road win at New Orleans. The Bears are likely a playoff team, and the Saints had won five of six games and three in a row at home when Kaepernick helped beat them in Week 12.
Sunday's trip to St. Louis was a different story.
Kaepernick's intentional grounding in the end zone gave St. Louis its first two points, and his botched pitch allowed the Rams to tie the game in regulation. Once in overtime, the 49ers missed a field goal attempt of their own before watching Greg Zuerlein hit a 54-yard kick with 30 seconds left in the extra period.
Kaepernick finished the contest 21 of 32 for 208 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions. He also rushed for the most yards (84) by a 49ers quarterback since Steve Young had 102 against the Saints in 1990.
But the 49ers were just eight of 19 on third downs, and 71 offensive plays netted just 13 points. The Rams, now at 5-6-1, are also not a playoff team this season.
Such is life with a young quarterback learning on the job. And luckily for the 49ers, these hard lessons are coming now, in a somewhat meaningless regular season game, and not when it counts in the postseason.
It's not like Kaepernick was an unmitigated disaster in St. Louis, either.
After his mistakes, Kaepernick bolted 50 yards on a broken play that helped set up what could have been the game-winning field goal. It was a play Smith likely could not have made.
To their credit, the Rams eventually tied the football game in the waning seconds of the fourth quarter.
On the second possession of overtime, Kaepernick moved the 49ers into field goal range, but David Akers missed a 51-yard try. The kick wasn't a chip shot, and Kaepernick moved the 49ers just 13 yards after taking over at midfield, but it was still a missed opportunity to win a football game.
Again, these are lessons he's learning now that he can file away for use when the postseason rolls around. Bad days and bad decisions happen to all young quarterbacks. It's a part of the learning process.
By starting Kaepernick into the postseason, the 49ers have increased their odds of both a Super Bowl run and a one-and-done situation. Whether you like it or not, it's a reality Harbaugh is willing to live with.
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