Harbaugh reaps reward for giving job to Kaepernick

dave.boling@thenewstribune.comDecember 20, 2012 

If Colin Kaepernick had fizzled, the blowback could have been brutal for San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh.

In essence, Harbaugh benched potential Pro Bowl quarterback Alex Smith, who led the NFL in completion percentage and had a better passer rating than Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Drew Brees, in favor of an unproven second-year kid.

And the only way the kid could improve on his predecessor’s results from last season would be to take the team to the Super Bowl.

Bold move, eh? Especially in a profession where decisions are often made on the strength of which option would be easiest to defend if it goes bad.

What is clear from this experiment is that Harbaugh, in his second season with the 49ers, doesn’t care about what-ifs or second-guesses.

“Just felt that was the best thing for our team at the time,” Harbaugh said when asked during a conference call Wednesday if he could pinpoint the most compelling reasons for the November switch.

A concussion to Smith in a game against the Rams opened the door for Kaepernick. But Smith, whose advancement in a seven-year career had been stifled by a constant rotation of offensive coordinators, had been at his best before going to the sideline.

Smith led the Niners to the NFC title game last season, and this year had compiled a 104.1 passer rating. Before he was injured, Smith was on a two-game tear of 25 completions over his previous 27 attempts.

But Kaepernick offered intriguing options. Strong-armed and elusive, Kaepernick, while at Nevada, had been the only collegiate quarterback to compile career numbers that exceed 10,000 passing yards and 4,000 rushing yards.

In his first start in place of Smith, Kaepernick threw two touchdowns and had a rating of 133.1 against the Chicago Bears. And when Smith was deemed healthy enough for a return, Harbaugh decided to stick with Kaepernick.

In five starts, Kaepernick has completed 66 percent of his passes for a 101.4 rating, and also rushed for five touchdowns at 7.2 yards per carry. Not only have the 49ers won four of those five, but they also beat New England on Sunday to snap the Patriots’ 20-game home winning streak.

“He came in playing pretty well right at the start,” Harbaugh said when asked of Kaepernick’s improvement since he’s been a starter. “There’s been some improvement in all the situations that he’s experienced … in five starts he’s experienced a lot.”

The Seahawks face Kaepernick as a starter for the first time Sunday evening at CenturyLink Field with playoffs and divisional dominance on the line.

“The thing that really jumps out is that Colin has such a strong arm, he can really fire the ball downfield as well as the play-action stuff,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “And when he gets out and runs, he can really go.”

Kaepernick, then, will test the Seahawks in many of the same ways Seattle rookie quarterback Russell Wilson challenges San Francisco’s defense.

Talking to Seattle-area media, Kaepernick was asked how the Niners have been able to avoid the disruption and divisiveness that a midseason quarterback shift can create in an NFL locker room.

“Everything we do is for the team,” he said. “Whatever is going to make the team better, whatever is going to be the best for the team … and we take that approach every day. I think that’s what made this thing go very smoothly.”

The fact that he has been lights-out successful, too, is a bigger factor.

Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman played for Harbaugh at Stanford, and has watched films of Kaepernick’s progression with the Niners.

Asked about Harbaugh’s bold move to go with Kaepernick, and how that opened the coach to critical scrutiny, Sherman chuckled.

“I don’t think he cares,” he said. “He’s going to do what he thinks is best for his team to win ballgames, and it’s been pretty successful. … They’ve still been winning ballgames, and he won a prime-time game last week, so, obviously, it looks like a great move right now.”

Dave Boling: 253-597-8440 dave.boling@thenewstribune.com @DaveBoling

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