Out of all the different ways it could had happened, I never saw it coming this way: Alex Smith will no longer be the San Francisco 49ers' starting quarterback.

Ok, if you're still clinging to the hope (all five of you) that he still is, then yes, Jim Harbaugh declined to declare Colin Kaepernick as the permanent starting QB in his post-game press conference just a couple of hours ago, instead stating, "We'll address that later." However, Harbaugh has had plenty of chances to give Smith a vote of confidence since Kaepernick showed a lot of his potential last Monday night against the Chicago Bears, and he has bypassed each and every one of them, instead choosing to play mystery-QB while actually buying himself as much time as possible to evaluate Kaepernick as a starter. Wake up and smell the coffee: anything other than Harbaugh stating Kaepernick will be the team's starting QB going forward will be a surprise. More on Kaepernick later, but for now let's go back to Smith.


I discussed Smith extensively in my first ever piece for 49erswebzone over a year and a half ago. At the time I graded him at a C-, someone who had high standards to meet as a result of his selection as a number one overall pick back in 2005, but who had also survived several years of incompetent leadership and was a better player because of it. He then proceeded to have a career season under Jim Harbaugh's tutelage, and was well on his way to having an even better season this year before suffering a concussion two weeks ago against the Rams. A 6-2 record, the highest completion percentage in the league, the third best QB rating, and also third best in yards/attempt - surely he would be back as the 49ers' starting quarterback once he was medically cleared to play, right? Right. For everything Alex Smith has endured with this franchise, he didn't deserve to lose his job like this. For all the commodities that came with being the number one overall pick (tons of money, basically), Smith has gone through plenty of rough moments in San Francisco, from playing behind awful offensive lines (see: separated shoulder in 2007) and having a limited number of playmakers to throw to, to learning a new offensive system in each of his first six seasons in the league. He could had left the franchise in 2009 or 2011, but both times he chose to come back, refusing to see his tenure in San Francisco have a dark ending. Finally, playing for Harbaugh and a competent offensive staff, Smith shined, showing new leadership skills, becoming and efficient signal-caller while acquiring total control of a new offense, and leading the team on a near-championship run. His performance this season was on track to be better than his career season last year, and after putting in some much work to become the QB he was envisioned as back in 2005, the QB to bring another Super Bowl to the franchise, what did he do to deserve being demoted to backup QB?

Nothing. Kaepernick is just better.

The sample size is short, but what the former Nevada QB has displayed in his two games as a starter has been outstanding. Last Monday the Bears dared him to beat them, and he did just that by completing a number of eye-popping passes with both touch and power. Nonetheless, the Bears (and many of us around the country, really) had underestimated Kaepernick's talent, and he was playing at home behind and offensive line which arguably had their best performance of the season, so I particularly had a lot of questions about how he would perform on the road against a defense that wouldn't misjudge the challenge, and which would be aided by one of the best home crowds in the nation. He responded by having another solid game today against the New Orleans Saints, dealing with all the adversity while producing five different potential scoring drives (two of which were not capitalized by the kicking team). He had some struggles, most notably an ill-advised interception towards the end of the 2nd quarter that was not costly thanks to Ahmad Brooks and the defense, but he also showed that the accuracy he displayed against the Bears was not a fluke. He demonstrated pocket awareness, extending plays, taking off running when he needed to, and helping the offensive line to not give up a sack. His running prowess came in handy when he ran a read-option play perfectly and scored the first touchdown of the game. His stat lines in these two games as a starter look pretty much the same as Alex Smith's in a given game, but it's not what Kaepernick does - it's how he does it.

Perhaps the one aspect of his game that separates him from Alex Smith is his 'jerkiness'. Kyle McLorg (A.K.A. Ruthless Sports Guy - @Ruthless_Sports brought this up during the game, " Remember how Nolan said that Alex Smith was teachable and Aaron Rodgers was cocky? Kaep is cocky. " This is totally correct, Kaepernick chooses to make the throws that Smith chooses not to make. The plays Smith turns into check downs, throwaways, or sacks to avoid a turnover, Kaepernick turns into possibilities with his cockyness. He has an immense amount of confidence in his arm and accuracy, which he displayed nicely in a 2nd&8 play from his own 8-yard line towards the end of the 3rd quarter: on a play-action pass, Kaepernick roped a pass for Michael Crabtree for a 15-yard gain towards the sideline against a Cover 3 look. He did not hesitate and threw the pass above Roman Harper and in front of Jabari Greer where only Crabtree could make the play. This was the first key play in a what turned out to be The Drive of the Game. Later on in the same drive early in the 4th quarter,Kaepernick had perhaps his most impressive pass of the day. It was 3rd&11 from his own 35-yard line, the kind of scenario I dreaded the most for the young QB in this game. On the previous play, he had been dropped for a 1-yard loss running a read-option similar to the one he ran for a touchdown in the 1st quarter. The Saints defense was in a position to get the ball back to their offense in a one-score game with plenty of time left, the crowd was roaring, the stage was set for Kaepernick's demise. Instead he got the ball on a shotgun formation, and (from a perfectly clean pocket, may I add) he threw a beauty of a pass to Delanie Walker 25 yards down the middle of the field against a Cover 2 look, above the linebackers and in front of the safeties, in a spot where Walker could lay out to make a play ...

... to make a play, Colin Kaepernick is the playmaker Alex Smith could never be. He makes up for his lack of experience by bringing all of the play-making abilities mentioned here. He obviously has developed a knowledge of the offense and seems poised in the huddle. He will still struggle every now and then, but not as often as I previously feared. So long as he continues to play within what's needed of him, and this coaching staff will make sure he does, he gives this team the same if not a better chance to win than Alex Smith ever did.

Which is a shame, because many times I saw Smith losing his job due to being put in a position to fail, or because of poor performance, or because a season-ending injury kept him from showing his true potential, but I never saw it coming this way: Alex Smith will lose his job as the starting quarterback of the 49ers because regardless of playing at the highest level in his career, Colin Kaepernick has demonstrated he can play at the same level while showing the potential for even better performance.

One Final Thought

I have a lot of respect for many individual players in the NFL: Trent Richardson for playing his heart out in each and every game for the Cleveland Browns and giving them a chance to win, Adrian Peterson for proving that hard work and dedication can lead you to bounce back from the toughest of the injuries to be better than you ever were before, and many others including Peyton Manning, Steven Jackson, and Larry Fitzgerald. That being said, I may never have more respect for an NFL player than I do for Alex Smith. If his days in a stat sheet for the 49ers are done, I will forever admire the effort he made to live up to the expectations place upon him as a number one overall pick. If it's time for me to turn his final report in, I'll give him a B+ for his 8-year tenure in San Francisco ... with an A+ for effort. He has given his 100% for this franchise - love him or hate him, fans need to recognize that and appreciate it.

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