San Francisco 49ers: How Jim Harbaugh's Bold QB Switch Led SF to the Super Bowl

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San Francisco 49ers: How Jim Harbaugh's Bold QB Switch Led SF to the Super Bowl
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The San Francisco 49ers' run to Super Bowl XLVII will forever be remembered as the season when Jim Harbaugh made one of the gutsiest coaching calls ever by replacing Alex Smith with Colin Kaepernick midway through the season

Smith was in the middle of the best season of his career and coming off a trip to the NFC Championship Game in the 2011-12 season that the 49ers lost in heart-breaking fashion. 

In Week 8 against the Arizona Cardinals, Smith took home NFC Offensive Player of the Week honors after thrashing the Arizona Cardinals on 18-of-19 passing for 232 yards and three touchdowns on Monday Night Football.

Coming off a bye in Week 9, Smith was poised to continue his brilliant play as he completed seven of his first eight attempts and threw for another touchdown against the St. Louis Rams in Week 10. 

Then, the concussion that Alex Smith suffered in the second quarter against the Rams changed everything for the 49ers.  

And I mean everything

The events that unfolded from that moment until now prove that Jim Harbaugh is an absolute genius as a head football coach and that his record of 27-8-1 during his first two years in charge is no fluke. 

 

The Decision

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Colin Kaepernick was immediately thrown into the fire against the Rams down 14-7 upon entering and not having taken the first-team practice reps all season. 

After taking his first quarter-and-a-half to settle in with the offense, Kaepernick showed great poise late in the game and was able to lead the team back from a 17-7 deficit in the fourth quarter before ultimately ending in a 24-24 tie. The sophomore quarterback finished the game 11-of-17 for 117 yards and rushed for another 66 yards and a game-changing touchdown. 

When Alex Smith failed to be cleared by a neurologist the week after the concussion, Kaepernick was given his first career start against the Chicago Bears in Week 11.

On November 19, Kaepernick stepped up to the bright lights of Monday Night Football and delivered an absolute gem on 16-of-23 passing for 243 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. 

The zip on his throws and the way he was able to move the ball down the field with ease against the renowned Bears defense was something Niners fans had not seen in the Alex Smith era. 

It was a totally different football team. 

The quarterback controversy that followed over the next week seemed like the only thing you could find on any sports media outlet around the nation. People could not stop talking about Jim Harbaugh and who he was going to play at the QB position moving forward.

Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

 

Harbaugh decided to go with the "hot hand" the following week against the New Orleans Saints and watched Kaepernick lead the team to yet another victory on the road in the always-tough Superdome. 

That was all Harbaugh needed to see. He knew he had his guy and he was not going to look back.

On November 28, it was announced  that Colin Kaepernick was officially the starting quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers

 

Ignoring the Criticism

It was no secret that Alex Smith was upset about the decision. You could feel the veteran quarterback's pain through his comments to the Associated Press, "I feel like the only thing I did to lose my job was get a concussion. You kind of state your case with your play and I felt like I've done that. It's tough."

Smith was not alone in his unhappiness about Harbaugh's midseason switch. 

For the next few weeks, the Bay Area and the rest of the nation seemed split down the middle on which guy deserved the job. 

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Many thought that Harbaugh was making a big mistake in switching quarterbacks so deep into a season. This especially was the case with Harbaugh giving the job to a second-year player. On a Super Bowl contending team.

Despite the abundance of criticism and his reputation that was laid on the line, Harbaugh never doubted his decision to go with the young, dual-threat talent. 

What many people did not realize at the time was that this was always the plan. Alex Smith was not drafted by Jim Harbaugh. Colin Kaepernick was.

In fact, the 49ers traded up nine spots and gave up three picks in order to select him at No. 36 in the 2011 NFL draft. 

Harbaugh knew that Kaepernick was the guy for the future, but once he saw that he was ready in his second year, it was time to pull the trigger.  

Jim Harbaugh was a quarterback in the NFL for 15 years. He developed Andrew Luck. He revamped Alex Smith's career. And he turned Colin Kaepernick into a stud. The guy is a pretty decent evaluator and coach of the quarterback position, and did not once think to care about the negative press he received for making the switch. 

 

A Star Is Born 

Watching the introductions for the NFC Championship game this past Sunday, it was hard not to notice that Kaepernick was making his ninth career start.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

In those nine games, the second-year quarterback out of the University of Nevada has already out-dueled the likes of Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan.

Colin Kaepernick has proved that he can beat a defense with his arm or his legs. He has proved this postseason that he thrives under pressure and in big games.

But most of all, he has proved that Jim Harbaugh made the right decision in naming him the starting quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers.

Did it happen in the best way possible? Not at all.

Would Harbaugh do it again? Without a doubt.

If Colin Kaepernick had not played in these past two games against Green Bay and Atlanta, the Niners' season very well might be over right now.

As the newborn phenom prepares for his 10th career start on February 3 in New Orleans, Harbaugh deserves all the credit in the world for molding Kaepernick into one of the scariest young players in the game.

Super Bowl XLVII could very likely be the first of many for the Jim Harbaugh-Colin Kaepernick era.

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