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COHN: 49ers' QB transition may be done deal already

Colin Kaepernick might have earned himself the job of 49ers' starting quarterback going forward, Lowell Cohn writes.

JOHN BURGESS / The Press Democrat
Published: Monday, November 19, 2012 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, November 19, 2012 at 10:22 p.m.

SAN FRANCISCO

Let the quarterback controversy begin.

Colin Kaepernick should be the 49ers' starting quarterback and Alex Smith should not. Kaepernick must be the starter — it's obvious — and if Jim Harbaugh goes back to Smith out of misplaced loyalty or just plain stubbornness, he is making the mistake of his life.

But I don't believe Harbaugh will go back to Smith. I firmly believe the transition from Smith to Kaepernick already happened, as in done deal. After the game, Harbaugh was asked if Kaepernick is his starting quarterback going forward.

“We'll see,” Harbaugh replied.

For Smith, that was the reply of death. It was Harbaugh's chance to say Smith still is his quarterback, to endorse him. Harbaugh chose not to.

“We'll make that decision as we go forward,” Harbaugh said.

He said he will ride the quarterback with the hot hand. Considering Smith had no hand in the Bears game and barely a hand in the Rams game, only one hand is red hot and it belongs to Kaepernick.

Kaepernick demolished the Bears, leading the Niners to a 32-7 win. But you already know that. He wrecked one of the elite defenses in the NFL and, although he had help from 10 other guys on offense, he was the engine that made the Niners' Ferrari run. He was. And in case you're wondering what the car was in the Smith days — they seem so long ago — it was a Toyota Corolla.

Kaepernick led his team to scores on their first four possessions. The 49ers scored 10 points in the first quarter. All that is significant. In the long ago Alex Smith Era, the Niners often didn't score in the first quarter. The offense would appear dormant or just plain dead. It was on life support — you could see it lying in a hospital bed with tubes and wires coming out of its arms and nose — and it was saved from dying by the stout defense.

We have forgotten around here what a fierce, dynamic, talented quarterback looks like. We can be forgiven for that — it's been so long. Just so you know, Kaepernick is what a good quarterback looks like.

His passes sizzle. He finds all his receivers. And most important, he finds his best receiver. Who is his best receiver? Well, that's easy. His best receiver is Vernon Davis, the premier tight end in the league.

In the long ago Alex Smith Era, Davis the Great became a vestigial organ on the Niners, kind of like the team's appendix. He was there but he had almost no pass-catching function because Smith didn't know how to get him the ball or didn't have the guts to do it. With Smith leading the team, the Niners squandered Davis, just wasted him.

Kaepernick threw to Davis three times in the very first offensive series — Davis caught two of them. In the game, Kaepernick targeted Davis eight times and connected six times. Which means Kaepernick was feeding Davis the ball. As you watched the game, you realized, gee, Vernon Davis does exist. He is no mere hologram now that the real Niners' quarterback, the one they had been waiting for, has taken over.

Kaepernick's first touchdown pass — in the second drive of the first quarter — was a dart to Davis. That drive took all of four plays and that means the 49ers finally have a quick-strike offense, instead of that slow methodical ball-control waltz they used to put out there with Smith.

I could give you lots of statistics to build up Kaepernick, stats like passer rating. But I won't. I don't need to. I'm saying you know the real thing when you see it. You just do. And you know the not-real thing when you see it. You just do. And Kaepernick is the real thing and Smith is the not-real thing. And now that Kaepernick has taken over — I think — the 49ers' offense is the real thing, a live thing as opposed to an inert thing.

If the Niners have Super Bowl aspirations, and they sure do, Kaepernick may take them there. Smith never could. Smith is the gutsy loser, the good sport, the guy who can't quite do it, the guy who's had a million chances and never made it really big, the guy people have argued about for years — is he good or isn't he? When people argue if you're good, it means you're not good enough.

The 49ers are Kaepernick's team now, have to be. Smith never would have done what Kaepernick did against Chicago. With him under center, it would have been a close game decided by field goals. With him under center, the offense would have been acceptable. With Kaepernick running the show, the offense was electric, and everyone in the stadium could feel it. People watching on TV could feel it.

You want examples? I really want to give examples of electricity at work.

In the first quarter, Kaepernick hit Kyle Williams deep on the right side for a 57-yard completion. Alex Smith does not make that pass. No way. With Kaepernick, the Niners have a vertical game, finally, instead of that humble dink-and-dunk passing “attack.”

In the third quarter with the Niners near the end zone, Kaepernick looked over the middle and saw his first read was not open. No problem. He slid left — keeping the play alive — spotted Michael Crabtree and threw him a TD pass on the run. Smith could not make that play in this universe or any universe. He could not extend the play and he sure could not throw a TD on the run.

The only question to be answered by the Niners is how they make the transition, if they chose to do it. If they don't go with Kaepernick and return to Smith and don't make it deep into the playoffs or to the Super Bowl, the criticism from fans and media will be brutal.

It is so obvious.

For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at cohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at lowell.cohn@pressdemocrat.com.

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