Sometimes, despite his roiling intensity, Jim Harbaugh just makes you smile.

Take last week, for example. After Colin Kaepernick's breathtaking debut, Harbaugh virtually admitted the obvious: Kaepernick would start again. As the week went on, though, he refused to make it official. In his uniquely tightfisted way, he asserted that tipping his hand would cost him a "competitive advantage" against the Saints. And why on earth would he go and do that?

I'm all for competitive advantages, but there were three things wrong with Harbaugh's theory. First, the Saints know that Harbaugh is smart; so they had to know he was way too smart to give up Kaepernick's efficient explosiveness. Second, and accordingly, all that Harbaugh was supposedly concealing was the possibility that he'd surprise the Saints by hitting them with Alex Smith; and since that "surprise" would merely delight the Saints—now that would cost him a "competitive advantage"—Harbaugh's implied threat was no threat at all.

The third thing wrong we'll discuss a bit later.

In any event, by and large, Harbaugh's gamesmanship was met with typical bemusement. Oh, sure, there were those who warned that Harbaugh was taking a mammoth risk, but they were missing the larger truth. Harbaugh had given Smith a golden chance to upgrade this O to a championship level. Smith hadn't done it, and Monday proved that Kaepernick might. In effect, Harbaugh was risking a brief playoff run so that he could take a genuine shot at the Super Bowl. If my coach won't take a risk like that, then I want a new coach, immediately.

So it was hardly earthshaking when Kaepernick took the field against the Saints. But there was still the matter of how he would play. After drawing perhaps the toughest ever first-start, he now was facing perhaps an even tougher second. Though the Saints' D was no match for the Bears', the noisy Superdome was one of the league's most intimidating venues. Add the prospect of trading points with Drew Brees, and this game could threaten to be even scarier.

But the core of Kaepernick's thrilling emergence—the essence of his injection of life—it all boils down to simply this: He. Doesn't. Show. Fear.

Unrattled by the noise, Kaepernick once again did what he does. He evaded the rush, focused downfield, and fired deep. Critics were quick to point out that his stat-line looked like it could've been Smith's: 231 yards with two scores (one on the ground) and a pick, with Randy Moss averting another. But leaving aside that the refs called back about a hundred yards, those aren't the stats that tell the story.

The crucial point is that Kaepernick makes throws that Smith would never dare attempt. For those keeping score, Kaepernick has now gone deep with 24.3% of his throws, fourth-best in the league. (Smith, of course, remains dead-last.) And predictably, Kaepernick's aggressiveness, coupled with his arm and his accuracy, has produced gobs of explosive plays: he's already made 12 of 20-yards-plus. (Smith has made only 22, in nearly three times as many attempts.) And amazingly, this explosiveness has carried no price of efficiency: Kaepernick's rating is 102.

Also worth mentioning, though, is what Kaepernick isn't. Perhaps our greatest draft-day fear was that Kaepernick would be just another gimmicky-offense athletic freak—a guy who'd make one read and run. Throughout Act One of his Niners career, Steve Young drove his receivers nuts by taking off at the first sign of trouble. But like Young's Act Two, Kaepernick is the opposite: even when you're screaming run!, he's waiting for a guy to break free. As soon as one does, the ball is there. And if no one does, then he runs, and breaks the D into tiny pieces.

In New Orleans, of course, our D was just as much the story (making up for the nightmare that our special teams continue to be). With Aldon Smith increasingly back on the line, our pass-rush again was relentless, while those two pick-sixes (on consecutive passes!) were obvious game-changers. But though I can't prove this, I doubt it's a coincidence that our D, like our O, has looked more aggressive these last two weeks. Aggressiveness has a way of spreading, and it all began with Kaepernick.

This QB "controversy" is so one-sided that it isn't really a controversy at all. The question, then, is why Harbaugh won't just end it.

With this changing of the guard looking ever more permanent, there's been a surge of sympathy for Smith. Undoubtedly, there's a cruelty here. Smith has fought through a ton of adversity, and to finally lose his job only now—so soon after it seemed that he'd left the darkness behind for good—would certainly be a shot to the gut. (The sight of Smith on the sideline on Sunday, all dressed up with no place to go, only added to the indignity.) And it's perhaps for this reason—and not for some "competitive advantage"—that Harbaugh seems willing to string him along.

"Alex Smith is our starting quarterback," Harbaugh said on Monday. "He has not done anything to lose that job." Obviously, if this were true, Smith, as our starter, would naturally start. So given all this cloak and dagger, we know Smith isn't our starting QB. Either Kaepernick is, or we don't really have a starter at all. And since the latter seems patently out of the question, Kaepernick must be our starting QB.

This, of course, is how it should be. Yet Harbaugh simply refuses to say. And by that refusal, he fuels this phony "controversy" (while chiding the press for treating it like one), and he weighs down Kaepernick's momentum—and for what? So he can spare Smith's feelings?


For years now, Smith has held this franchise hostage. The debate has been exhausting; it started on draft-day 2005, and it simply hasn't ever stopped. Even Harbaugh has seemed confused; he's showered Smith with love and support, but he's never stopped looking for someone better. Now, though, he's found him at last. It's Kaepernick, his protégé, the league's most spectacular young QB.

Already, Harbaugh has given so much. And hopefully there's much more on the way. But now, this week, I want one thing. The thing I've sensed, more than anything else, these last two weeks. The thing I think this team needs most.