Here is a link to my Thursday column about Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick. The full column appears below.
An old friend returns to the Bay Area on Sunday. Alex Smith will play quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs against the Raiders.
I pull for Smith. I bet you do, too. He is a gentleman. He had a rough go with Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary and he remained a gentleman. He was the first guy taken in the 2005 draft and, although he wasn’t a bust — nothing like that — he never lived up to first-overall-pick promise. He read all about it and heard all about it and, still, he remained a gentleman.
And although he is not a great quarterback, he is a very good quarterback. He’s doing just fine in Kansas City, has connected with Chiefs coach Andy Reid in ways he never connected with Jim Harbaugh. He even has a deep passing game, something he rarely showed in San Francisco — or was not allowed to show.
So, I ask a purely hypothetical question for the heck of it: Are the 49ers appreciably better at quarterback with Colin Kaepernick instead of Smith?
It’s probably an impertinent question and it certainly calls into question what Kaepernick has done and is doing. And let’s face it, last season no one would have asked the question. No one would have dared.
Kaepernick got the Niners to the Super Bowl and Smith would not have taken them to the Super Bowl. It’s just that Kaepernick has been shaky this season, has not won games through sheer heroism as most people thought he would. He was a hero last season, but the hero went away.
I always thought Harbaugh and Trent Baalke were right to choose Kaepernick over Smith. I still think they were right. This is not a dump Kaepernick column or a dump on Kaepernick column. But I’ll tell you this, if Smith were the 49ers quarterback, they would have just about the same record they have now.
The 49ers are 9-4. The Chiefs are 10-3. Pretty close. Smith could manage the 49ers’ offense as well as Kaepernick. Oh, let’s not mess around. He could manage it better. With Smith under center, there wouldn’t be all those delay-of-game penalties or the quarterback frantically calling time out with one second left on the play clock because there is so much to do and so little time to do it, and the quarterback — Kaepernick — feels his brain cells overloaded and misfiring. None of that would happen with Smith.
The issue for Harbaugh, why he chose Kaepernick over Smith, was about dynamism. Smith was not dynamic enough, was too calculating and didn’t make enough big plays. Smith’s analytical, conservative, managerial style was not what Harbaugh wanted. When the opportunity presented itself, Harbaugh went with Kaepernick, who has the “gunslinger” style Harbaugh craved.
It’s just that Gunslinger Colin disappeared. He hung up his six-shooter and boots and saddle, gave up the whole cowboy shtick and went to business school for an MBA focusing in managerial studies, and now he’s QB as manager. He’s become Alex Smith without the charm.
How did this change come about?
For this you must know how the NFL works. When Gunslinger Kaepernick burst onto the scene last season in that electric game against the Bears, the league didn’t have a book on him. Opponents didn’t know what to do with him, with his running and that read-option razzmatazz. In the offseason, reputable sports magazines were saying the Niners’ new offense would revolutionize offenses all over the NFL.
That didn’t happen.
Here’s what did happen. The league had a chance to study the 49ers’ offense, a chance to study Kaepernick. Every team — believe me — studied the Super Bowl film. They learned what Kaepernick does well and what he doesn’t do so well. But it’s more than that.
They learned what plays he likes — and what plays Harbaugh likes to use with him. This season, when teams see the Niners lining up for those plays, they sometimes show defenses that can beat those plays. That forces Kaepernick to call an audible. Sometimes, that audible is what the defense wants and can defeat. Sometimes, Kaepernick doesn’t look like such a gunslinger.
Defenses are not always reactive. Good defenses can force an offense away from the plays it likes to run.
Carolina did that to the 49ers. Seattle did it until Frank Gore’s great, game-winning run. Defenses routinely have forced Kaepernick away from his preferred plays. Like the read-option. He almost never does that anymore.
You may sense a subtext in what I’m writing. Well, two subtexts. I’m saying Alex Smith understands defenses better than Kaepernick, would not be blocked and confused the way Kaepernick gets blocked and confused. But there’s something even more important.
I’m saying the 49ers coaches need to teach Kaepernick better. They chose him over Smith. Sure. OK. Now, teach him. Teach him to read defenses better. Teach him to think faster when the clock is winding down. And teach him correct footwork.
That’s right, footwork.
Look at Kaepernick during a game. His legs are often spread too wide as he throws and his passes sail high or short. On some passes, his legs are all wrong. His passer rating last Sunday was 67.5. Not good enough. Certainly not good enough for a Super Bowl contender.
Compare film of Kaepernick to film of Joe Montana, Montana always steady on his feet, his legs in perfect position under his torso. Bill Walsh preached a quarterback cannot throw right if he doesn’t stand right. Steve Young took years to learn that. Harbaugh needs to teach Kaepernick to stand right, to move right. Does Harbaugh realize that?
Some of you probably don’t like me comparing Kaepernick and Smith. Some of you don’t think Smith is any good. He’s lucky because the Chiefs have a strong defense. He’s being saved by the Chiefs’ defense. Sure, but the same goes for Kaepernick. The 49ers’ defense is saving him, saved him last week.
The two offensive plays that won the game for the 49ers over the Seahawks were Gore’s run and Kaepernick’s 7-yard keeper around the left end that kept the final drive going. Neither was a pass play.
Smith could have handled those plays.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.