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Harbaugh made aggressive QB change in strangely passive way

Published: Monday, January 7, 2013 at 4:26 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 7, 2013 at 4:26 p.m.

SANTA CLARA

It is take-stock time for the 49ers. As they approach Saturday's do-or-die playoff game against the Packers, it's time to answer two significant questions:

Was Jim Harbaugh correct to go with Colin Kaepernick over Alex Smith starting Nov. 19 against Chicago? And did Harbaugh handle the transition the right way?

The answers to these questions have significant implications for the Packers game.

Yes, Harbaugh was correct to delete Smith as his starting quarterback and insert Kaepernick. Many savvy football observers disagree with that assertion. All I can say is that a writer — me — is entitled to his axiom. And mine is that Kaepernick is a better quarterback than Smith, a pretty good quarterback himself.

Kaepernick runs better. The Niners can use the zone-read option with him, which means he can hand off the ball or keep it himself and run. This creates nightmares for the defense, as you have seen. He is a precise thrower in the short, medium and long range, and he consistently makes throws Smith never would attempt. The Niners have a better offense with Kaepernick.

Harbaugh showed vision when he made the change — he saw the truth. And he showed guts because many people disagreed with him. I would bet some of his own coaches disagreed and we know at least one player, Joe Staley, disagreed. I'm sure others did, too.

Harbaugh did what he thought was right and disregarded the turmoil he created. In this sense — an important sense — Harbaugh is a strong leader.

That takes us to the second question. Did he handle the transition the right way?

At his Monday news conference, I asked if he always planned to make Kaepernick the starter at some point this season, or if he decided to start Kaepernick only after Smith left the Rams game on Nov. 11 with a concussion.

“No, it was not a predetermined move,” Harbaugh told me. “The decision was made when Alex got hurt. Colin played, played well in his first start. Came back the next week, still felt that that week against New Orleans that Colin gave us our best chance to win. He was the healthier and played well. And then after that I saw enough really good things that (I) wanted to have the same faith and trust in Colin that we had shown in Alex. And it's pretty well documented how we felt about both guys — that one's our left arm, one's our right arm. And both are very good quarterbacks. And we felt we could win with either quarterback. And we're in a great situation having both those men on our team.”

Let's be clear about what Harbaugh said. He never planned to make Kaepernick his starter. He would have stayed with Smith. The only reason he dumped Smith is because Kaepernick did well after Smith suffered a concussion.

I am not trying to get Harbaugh — this is not a gotcha moment. I submit he could have — should have — organized things better, more rigorously. If he thought Kaepernick was the better quarterback — and that sure seems to be the case — he could have made a plan, a real plan to phase him in during the season. I don't believe he should have waited for mere chance — the concussion — to dictate whom he played. It's the difference between deciding your fate and having your fate decided for you.

You may wonder why I'm making a big deal out of this. Fair enough. Harbaugh's reluctance to make the move he wanted to make has real-life implications for his team as it enters the postseason.

Compare him to Pete Carroll in Seattle. Before this season, the Seahawks signed quarterback Matt Flynn for big money. Everyone thought Flynn was the quarterback the Seahawks desperately needed and he would start. In training camp, Carroll had the chutzpah — extreme nerve — to initiate a three-way competition involving Flynn, incumbent Tavaris Jackson and rookie Russell Wilson.

Wilson won the competition and became the starter. No questions asked. He won. He started. Carroll acted with confidence and guts, and he acted early. So, he has a team on the rise, a playoff team with a rookie quarterback who started all 16 regular-season games. Wilson is as experienced as any rookie can be.

Harbaugh had a similar situation — two contending quarterbacks — but he never held an open competition. He was a man waiting for a concussion. The result? Although Kaepernick is a second-year player, he has less experience than the rookie Wilson — Kaepernick has started just seven games. Kaepernick also has less experience than Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, both rookies. Most people expect Kaepernick to do just fine in the playoffs, but Wilson already has done just fine in the playoffs and is, frankly, more established.

None of this is to say the Niners will fail, or Harbaugh doesn't know his business. But he was strangely passive in making his decision and almost certainly wouldn't have made it except for a knock on the head.

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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