Alex Smith vs. Colin Kaepernick: Who Is Best For 49ers vs. Cincinnati?

Ted JohnsonAnalyst ISeptember 20, 2011

Alex Smith vs. Colin Kaepernick: Who Is Best For 49ers vs. Cincinnati?

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    Some San Francisco 49er fans feel they’re missing out. Examining the box scores from Week 2 reveals that rookie quarterbacks and second-year QBs are doing just fine in the NFL, thank you. So much for this so-called unwritten rule that rookies should sit and listen and learn, lest those big and mean NFL defenses take away their lunches.

    In two starts, Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers has thrown for more than 800 yards. Andy Dalton started his first game for the Bengals and racked up more than 332 yards. Sam Bradford of the Rams started his 18th game in his second year and also broke the 300-yard mark in a losing effort against the Giants.

    Then, there are the 49ers.

    In two games, Alex Smith has totaled just over 303 yards. He’s thrown two TDs and one interception, which happened to lead to a touchdown by Dallas in Sunday’s 27-24 overtime loss.

    Smith is in his seventh year; many fans are frustrated.

    On the bench is a tall, fast, second-round draft pick out of Nevada named Colin Kaepernick, who has a gun. It’s only natural to wonder what he could do if given the chance. And in light of the success of Newton and Dalton—both of whom, like Kaepernick, ran various versions of the popular spread offense—it seems that the transition to the NFL isn’t that tough.

    But don’t be fooled. Alex Smith is doing what needs to be done to put the 49ers in position to win. Here are five reasons why he should continue to start in Week 3 against Cincinnati.

Never Better

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    Smith is hitting on 70 percent of this throws (31-for-44). He’s thrown an interception, but it could be argued that it was simply miscommunication between him and intended target Vernon Davis. In light of the replay, both may have been at fault. Even so, the QB has to be extra safe, so we’ll put that one on Smith.

    That said, all Alex Smith has done is improve the offense. Aside from the high completion percentage, he’s the team’s second-leading rusher, with 43 yards on 10 plays. Remember, most of those runs were pass plays on the verge of breaking down. Smith got positive yardage on them.

    That’s to his credit.

    What’s more, it’s to the credit of new coach Jim Harbaugh that he saw that capability in Smith and has coached him to use it. As a result, the team is much better. Last year, the Niners were 0-2 at this time. There’s a lot of clamor right now that they should be 2-0.

    That angst is a credit to Smith, whose play has been—according to NFL stats—30 percent better than last year.

    How can I say that?

    Smith’s career QB rating has been 70, and now it’s at 90 (albeit after two games). That’s a 30 percent increase.

    In other words, he’s better than Alex Smith of 2010.

    Why change?

Relaxed

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    Aside from the improved numbers, just watching Smith in the pocket shows that this is a different Alex Smith. On most pass plays he has a safety throw—albeit it a short one—to an open receiver.

    What he’s not doing is trying to jam something in against coverage. Moreover, he’s making the tough throws look easy.

    Those cross-the-field out patterns to Ted Ginn, Jr., last Sunday are the true test of an NFL quarterback. Overall, the length of those passes is nearly 30 yards in the air, with the receiver running away and with the potential threat of a short ball being easily intercepted and then returned through open field for defensive TD.

    Smith’s out throws have been spot on.

    Does Kaepernick make those throws?

    Only he and Jim Harbaugh know for sure, but that throw—although essential—is only one part of earning the right to guide the team.

    Kaepernick’s best plays during the preseason came on scrambles. That ability does not constitute the foundation of an offense. Making the right reads and throws under pressure does. Even more so—and this is one that even Kaepernick admits—is making the audible calls at the line.

    As fans, we don’t know how many times an audible was called that negated the defense’s intent. That means less chaos, broken plays, turnovers and points.

    Smith is relaxed and confident in that role, something Kaepernick can’t say.

Sack Issues

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    Smith has been sacked six times in two games. Check that, sacked six times against Dallas, zero vs. Seattle. Still, that projects out to 48 for the season, which would put the Niners in the bottom six or eight in the league.

    Of course, facing Demarcus Ware and the Cowboys, who have one of the most talented front-sevens in the game, had something to do with it.

    Yet the sacks that Smith took were not due to his holding the ball too long. The first sack might have been due to not recognizing a blitz (on a screen play, which had Smith’s back to the defense after the snap). He also avoided other sacks with good footwork.

    Kaepernick is known for his running ability. Right now, I guess it would be his best asset. But a QB known more for running than for managing an offense is a QB most likely with short availability.

    Run-first QBs invite too much contact.

    As we saw with Michael Vick on Sunday night, escapability is one thing, but reducing the hits—even the innocuous ones—means everything for an NFL quarterback.

    Smith has done a good job in that department.

There’s a Reason

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    We don’t see what Jim Harbaugh sees every day in practice. What’s more, we don’t explicitly know the vision Jim Harbaugh has for the formula for success with regards to the 2011 49ers.

    But we have a pretty good idea.

    Reason No. 1: It’s a big offensive line that should be capable of handling defenses so Frank Gore can get greater yardage. They are built to bulldoze defenses. The coaching staff and the team are still trying to figure out how to maximize this apparent strength.

    Reason No. 2a: It’s a team with limited potential for stretching the field with deep passes. Part of that comes from the receivers. Braylon Edwards, who suffered a twisted knee, is the exception, but Michael Crabtree (hurt), Joshua Morgan and Kyle Williams don’t register among the league’s elite for getting downfield. Ted Ginn, Jr., certainly has the speed, but not the hands to match.

    Reason No. 2b: That road-grading crew up front isn’t at its best when asked to dance with opposing pass rushers. Throwing downfield, especially on 3rd-and-long, constantly pressures the offensive line. But if you look around the league, 3rd-and-long is tough on every team. The key is how to avoid it.

    Reason No. 3: The coaching staff and the team are still trying to fit all the pieces together. There are weaknesses, to be sure, but also undiscovered strengths (where, oh where, is the tight end deep in the middle?).

    That’s what makes it so frustrating. The talent is there—enough to get a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter against a team many felt would challenge for the NFC East title. And there’s no doubt that the Cowboys are very, very good offensively.

    Harbaugh needs a quarterback who is efficient, conservative and doesn’t make stupid mistakes. With a rookie, those chances increase.

Defense

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    The weak spot of the 49ers in 2010 was pass defense, and the Cowboys proved that it still remains a concern.

    Tony Romo and Jon Kitna lit up the 49ers for 432 net yards on 26-of-43 passing. Dispiritingly, three plays went longer than 33 yards (missed tackles and assignments), and even worse, Dallas tight end Jason Witten earned a few more future Hall of Fame votes with another 100-plus-yards-receiving game.

    In other words, playing Colin Kaepernick vs. Cincinnati isn’t completely out of the question. But perhaps someone of his size (6’5” and 220 pounds) and speed might be better off at free safety.