The answer may never be known with certainty, but at least one former NFL quarterback thinks the San Francisco 49ers could have made the Super Bowl this season with Alex Smith instead of Colin Kaepernick.
According to CSN Bay Area, NFL Network analyst and former Super Bowl quarterback Kurt Warner believes Smith could have put the 49ers in the same situation they are now—preparing to play the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII.
“When you look back at that game last year, we say Alex Smith couldn’t [lead the 49ers to the Super Bowl]. Well, Alex Smith played well enough in that game to get them to the Super Bowl; it was really other circumstances that prevented that. There is no question in my mind that Alex Smith could have gotten them to the Super Bowl because I believe this team has so many different ways to win."
The question is difficult to speculate on, as a number of varying factors go into a quarterback change.
Smith went 6-2 in games he started and finished in 2012. He also won a playoff game last season over the New Orleans Saints. The 49ers made the switch to Kaepernick after Smith suffered a concussion during an eventual tie with the St. Louis Rams in Week 10.
Warner makes a smart point about the 49ers' ability to win games in different ways, regardless of the quarterback.
While Kaepernick has brought a rushing element to the quarterback position, the 49ers were still a dominant running team with Smith under center. Over the first eight games, San Francisco averaged 168.3 yards a game on the ground. The 49ers have averaged 159 a game in nine Kaepernick starts.
The 49ers defense has also been as consistent a unit as there is in the NFL, whether Smith or Kaepernick has started.
A strong running game, dominant defense and efficient quarterback play—remember, Smith was leading the NFL in completion percentage and had a passer rating of 104.1—is still one recipe for a Super Bowl berth.
However, one important factor in deciding whether or not Smith could have delivered a Super Bowl appearance is his ability to overcome deficits in the playoffs.
Early in 2012, the 49ers fell behind the Minnesota Vikings (17-6 in third quarter) and New York Giants (17-3 early in third) and couldn't mount a comeback. Smith threw four interceptions in those games and struggled moving the football in comeback mode.
Kaepernick has overcome adversity in these playoffs.
In the Divisional Round, Kaepernick threw a pick-six to Green Bay Packers cornerback Sam Shields on the first series. Down 7-0, a first-time starter in the postseason could have folded. Instead, Kaepernick rebounded, went punch-for-punch with Aaron Rodgers and then threw knockout blows with both his legs and arm.
A week later, Kaepernick successfully dealt with an even more precarious situation. After spotting the Falcons 17 first-half points in the Georgia Dome, the 49ers outscored Atlanta 28-7 to advance to the Super Bowl.
Could Smith have brought the 49ers back in either situation?
The 49ers were clearly a better team than the Packers in the Divisional Round, and it went past just the play from the quarterback. A more physical, complete team on both sides, San Francisco pounded Green Bay into submission. While 181 rushing yards wouldn't have been in the cards, Smith proved in Week 1 that he could beat Rodgers and the Packers.
A 17-point deficit in Atlanta would have been the tough spot for Smith. In two similar situations, Smith couldn't get the 49ers in position to win the football game. Could he have turned that around on the biggest stage?
With Smith under center, maybe the 49ers' season would have ended in the NFC Championship Game for the second straight season.
We will never know if Alex Smith could have gotten the 49ers to the Super Bowl in 2012-13. Kaepernick was Jim Harbaugh's choice at quarterback, and that decision has been more than verified as the correct one.
But in the leadup to Super Bowl XLVII, it's worth wondering where San Francisco would be without Smith's concussion in Week 10.
Would the 49ers still be prepping for the Ravens, or starting their offseason early?
Luckily for 49ers fans, that question doesn't have to be answered.