SAN FRANCISCO — A star was born at Candlestick Park on Monday night, along with a full-fledged quarterback controversy and, perhaps, the makings of a Super Bowl-caliber offense.
In a game that underscored exactly why so many NFL players try to fight through concussion symptoms to stay on the field, the San Francisco 49ers' aerial attack got an unexpected surge in a 32-7 victory over the Chicago Bears. As 49ers quarterback Alex Smith stood on the sidelines watching backup Colin Kaepernick tear up the Bears in his first NFL start, he may have spotted his job security blowing away in the chilly Bay breeze.
As 49ers owner Jed York asked rhetorically following the game, "What do you think the headlines will be tomorrow?"
York knows the deal. So does 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh, whose postgame comments about which quarterback will start next Sunday's game against the Saints in New Orleans were purposely noncommittal. And if Smith's head doesn't still hurt from the trauma it absorbed in the 49ers' tie with the St. Louis Rams the previous weekend, it was undoubtedly spinning Monday night as he tried to process the ramifications of Kaepernick's breakout performance.
Smith, who fought hard to get back on the field following his concussion against the Rams but wasn't cleared by team doctors after taking a "contact test" on Sunday, obviously had his reasons. Though Smith ranks third in the NFL with a 104.1 passer rating, his mobile and strong-armed backup displayed a downfield dimension seldom seen in San Francisco since the Joe Montana/Steve Young glory days.
And while the late '80s/early '90s debates as to which of those future Hall of Famers should run the Niners' otherworldly offense may have been the Mother of All Quarterback Controversies, Smith vs. Kaepernick may turn out to be a bit better than a red-headed stepchild.
So, will Harbaugh hand the ball once again to Kaepernick at the Superdome on Sunday, and perhaps beyond? "We'll see," the coach said. "I usually tend to go with the guy who's got the hot hand, and we've got two quarterbacks that have got a hot hand."
He's right: Smith, who seemed to be falling out of favor during a shaky effort in the Niners' previous nationally televised home night game exactly one month earlier, bounced back emphatically in his next two starts. His combined stats since struggling in that Thursday night victory over the Seattle Seahawks at Candlestick: 25 of 27 passes for 304 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions.
It's hard to yank a guy playing that efficiently, especially based on Kaepernick's single-game sample size. Then again, the athletic second-year passer out of Nevada was really, really good, and it did not seem to be a fluky occurrence.
"He was ready," said 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman, whose typically innovative game plan — which sometimes featured seven offensive linemen on the field — kept Chicago off balance.
Kaepernick's numbers (16-of-23, 243 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions) were impressive, especially given that they were compiled against the NFL's second-stingiest scoring defense coming in, but they did not reveal the depth of his excellence. The ball came off his hand with zip and authority; he made smart, confident decisions; and he attacked the opposing secondary without hesitation, something Smith isn't always encouraged or equipped to do.
It's also instructive to remember that, since this was a beat down of comprehensive proportions, a realistic cutoff point for studying Kaepernick's numbers should be with 11:05 remaining in the third quarter. His crafty, 10-yard touchdown pass to Michael Crabtree gave the Niners (7-2-1) a 27-0 lead and essentially ended the game. At that point Kaepernick had completed 14 of 18 passes for 231 yards, and 69,732 fans at the 'Stick were contemplating cherry red No. 7 jerseys as possible Christmas presents.
To be fair, Kaepernick was better protected than British boy band One Direction, while Bears quarterback Jason Campbell absorbed six sacks — a stunning five-and-a-half of them by outside linebacker Aldon Smith. Campbell, playing for starter Jay Cutler (who'd suffered a concussion of his own in last Sunday night's defeat to the Texans), got swallowed up all night by the Niners' top-ranked scoring defense, which allowed Chicago (7-3) only 143 total yards.
In other words, the Niners likely could have won this game by employing the type of run-heavy, risk-averse attack they've so often asked Smith to administer during Harbaugh's two seasons as coach. Given that they came within an overtime defeat to the New York Giants last January of reaching the Super Bowl, that approach is not necessarily a non-starter.
However, if they go after opponents the way Kaepernick did Monday night, these Niners would be much better equipped to make a return trip to the Superdome come February.
They sure looked super from the start of Monday night's game. On San Francisco's first play from scrimmage, Kaepernick fired a hard, low, eight-yard completion to wideout Mario Manningham near the left sideline. Two plays later, with massive tackle Leonard Davis split wide in what looked like an optical illusion, Kaepernick found Vernon Davis downfield for a 22-yard gain.
"He put that ball right there," said the dynamic tight end, who caught six passes for 83 yards and a touchdown. "I was like, 'Hey, we got Colin Kaepernick.' He went to work."
Kaepernick's most impressive endeavor came on San Francisco's second drive. Facing a third-and-7 from his own 40-yard line, he dropped back in the shotgun formation and noticed that the Bears were playing a Cover-1 defense (a man-to-man scheme with one safety helping over the top). He looked toward Davis, his first read, and saw that free safety Chris Conte was shading in the tight end's direction. So Kaepernick turned back to his right and lofted a gorgeous ball that fell into the hands of Williams, who caught it effortlessly for a 57-yard gain.
"Kyle's a great route-runner," Kaepernick said after the game as he dressed at his locker. "He has a lot of speed. I thought I'd give him a shot."
Kaepernick's three-yard touchdown pass to Davis on the following play gave the Niners a 10-0 lead. His other scoring pass — to Crabtree, on San Francisco's first drive of the second half — was especially impressive: On third-and-6 from the Chicago 10, Kaepernick dropped back and glanced to his right, then turned his head back to his left as the pocket collapsed. The quarterback scrambled left to buy time before firing a crisp pass to Crabtree, who had gained some separation from cornerback Charles Tillman in the left corner of the end zone.
"It's no secret, bro — that dude can play ball," Crabtree said. "It was too much for them. Colin's a baller. That's one dude I know I don't have to worry about."
What happens next is now Harbaugh's worry, beginning with Sunday's game against the surging Saints. The coach could go back to Smith, who was so prolific in the Niners' playoff victory over New Orleans last January. He could stick with Kaepernick and make the Saints prepare for a less-known quantity.
Asked about the "unwritten rule" that a player doesn't lose his job because of injury, Harbaugh replied, "We'll make that determination as we go. But, there's no rule."
A cynic would wonder if Harbaugh might evade the problem by urging team doctors not to clear Smith next week, something that, in fairness, could also happen without the coach's input. Certainly, Smith will be pushing hard to get back into the mix, given what he saw on Monday.
My belief is that Smith, once healthy, will remain the Niners' starter, though if he struggles in a given game — or even a given half — Harbaugh will be less hesitant to make a switch than the coach would have been before Monday.
It also seems highly plausible that, after this season, the Niners will build for a future with Kaepernick. That means Smith, the franchise's ultimate survivor since being drafted first overall in 2005, would likely be traded or released to pursue other options.
In the meantime, there will be headlines and heated debates and a quarterback controversy that won't subside anytime soon.
"Yeah, probably so — there will for sure," Davis conceded. "But we stick together as a team. We don't like controversy around here."
After Monday, the Niners had best learn to deal with it.
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