San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh made one of the toughest in-season decisions a coach has ever made. Fortunately for him, he made the right call.
Colin Kaepernick came in at quarterback in Week 10 as relief for the injured Alex Smith. The starting quarterback had suffered a concussion and was unable to play for a couple of weeks.
Although Kaepernick did not look great in a tie to the St. Louis Rams, he dazzled one week later in a Monday Night Football win over the Chicago Bears. His ability to throw and run completely transformed the offense, and Harbaugh made the decision to keep him as the team's starter for the remainder of the season.
This was not an easy choice. Not only was Smith leading the NFL in completion percentage at the time and playing extremely well, but the team was 7-2-1 after the Bears win and in serious contention to go deep in the playoffs.
It is always difficult to change something that is working, especially when the other option is a relative unknown with very little NFL experience.
However, Harbaugh had the guts to make the switch. The playoff win over the Green Bay Packers proved that he made the right call.
In the second-round victory, Kaepernick set a new playoff record with 181 rushing yards for a quarterback. He was responsible for four touchdowns, two through the air and two on the ground. His offensive performance as a whole helped the team score 45 points on 579 total yards.
There is simply no way that Smith would have been able to succeed in this way against the same defense.
Green Bay has dominated pocket passers throughout the season. The unit is No. 11 in the league against the pass, and opposing quarterbacks had the fourth-worst passer rating against the Packers this year.
In the playoffs, however, the squad was completely unable to get a hand on Kaepernick. The Packers finished with only one sack and two total hits on the quarterback. Meanwhile, the second-year player was able to scramble all day for long runs.
For all of Smith's positives, he is not good at avoiding a sack. His 9.9-percent sack rate per pass attempt was among the highest in the league, according to Pro Football Reference. This is even worse considering the talent that the 49ers have on the offensive line.
He might have avoided turnovers by simply taking a sack, but it is a great way to stall successful drives. San Francisco certainly would not be able to convert eight of its 13 third-down attempts like it did on Saturday with a quarterback who takes too many sacks.
Would you have benched Alex Smith during the season?
The players on the 49ers might like Smith, but they believe in Kaepernick. They trust that he is the person to lead this team to the Super Bowl.
After the win, receiver Michael Crabtree said of the quarterback (via USA Today), "The guy's playing football, man. He's making it happen with his feet, with his arm. He's just out there making plays. He's a playmaker."
This good feeling is as important as talent, because players must trust in a quarterback.
Although Smith provided some great moments with the 49ers, it is obvious that his time as a starter in San Francisco is over. He did not lose his job to injury. Instead, he lost his job due to the fact that his replacement is simply special.
Harbaugh saw that difference early in the season and decided to make the switch. It is now obvious that this was the best decision he could have made.