Colin Kaepernick took over for Alex Smith at quarterback for the 49ers this week. He led San Francisco to a 32-7 win while completing 16 of 23 passes for 243 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran for 12 yards as he controlled a Bears defense that had been excellent before Monday night.
So naturally, the call is for Kaepernick to take over for the serviceable but less-than-breathtaking Smith moving forward. Even coach Jim Harbaugh seemed open to the idea, saying he would “ride the hot hand” in the second half of the season.
But there are plenty of good reasons why San Francisco fans should hold off on full-throated support for Kaepernick. It starts with Cam Newton, continues with the likes of Michael Vick, Matt Flynn, Kyle Orton and Kevin Kolb, and ends with Mark Sanchez.
That’s right — it’s the old “you never know a good thing until you lose it” argument. After one game, the 49ers can’t be convinced that Kaepernick gives them a long-term chance to win, while Smith has done just enough to show that he can hold off the losses.
In the past few years, the NFL has given plenty of evidence that teams shouldn’t just jump to a quarterback who can explode for a night or two. It’s almost like Major League Baseball, where a rookie pitcher comes out and throws a no-hitter in his first season and is hardly touchable, then suddenly becomes average in his second year in the league. It takes talent to be a great quarterback for even one night, but it takes a different kind of talent to play at that level for a long time. Too often, teams have seen their quarterback subs fade after a few more cycles through the NFL gauntlet.
Newton is an obvious example, as a stellar rookie season has been met with a rough second-year campaign. While Newton has an entire team around him not playing up to its ability, the wide gaps in his production and demeanor between this year and last have some wondering whether the initial rush of success will be worth it. The Panthers will likely hang onto Newton for years, hoping he’ll regain that form, but it appears that he’s at best an average quarterback, further crippled by his lack of confidence.
But more comparable to the Kaepernick situation is what happened to a stash of quarterbacks in recent years. Kolb (Eagles) and Flynn (Packers) both came in for spot starts and blew their opponents away, putting up numbers that made people wonder how these two guys had been relegated to the bench. They were quickly scooped up for starting jobs, but once with their new teams, they showed exactly why they had been backups. Neither had the range of talent needed to carry a team as a starter. The same thing happened with Orton, who looked phenomenal enough for the Bears (who hadn’t had anything resembling a quarterback for about a decade). He got the job in Denver but experienced a similar letdown.
Perhaps the biggest example from this class of quarterbacks would be one passer who could be truly great: Vick. He jumped into the mix for the Eagles and put up incredible performances, electrifying the fan base and sending Donovan McNabb and Kolb out of town. But as the league has adjusted to him, he’s taken a beating under center for the Eagles this season (although a good bit of that may be due to the rest of the team not being balanced, and Vick having to pick up the slack).
The point remains: Quarterbacks who come in for spot starts or short stretches often look fantastic, but whether they can be good starters long-term is much harder to figure out.
That brings the discussion to Sanchez. While Kaepernick is no Tim Tebow, the politics surrounding whether he will get to start over Smith are virtually the same as in New York, considering the main reason why the Jets are hanging on to the below-par Sanchez. If New York benches Sanchez, the team most likely can never go back. His confidence will be shot, the grand scheme that the Jets began by drafting him and starting him immediately will be foiled, and his status among his teammates will forever be frayed. It’s one thing to have a quarterback competition, but it’s another entirely to dethrone a long-time quarterback. If the Jets pull Sanchez or the 49ers yank Smith, that’s not a one-game decision — they have to be ready to stick with their new man for a while, because they’ll have smashed the value of the original starter.
This is especially true in Smith’s case — possibly more so than any other quarterback ever. Smith was picked first overall in 2005 then kicked around in the 49ers organization for years. He was starting, then he wasn’t. He had more offensive coordinators than seasons at one point. He was the butt of jokes, and the good soldier trying to hold the sieve as the team’s shortcomings rushed through.
Smith has taken a load of garbage in his time in San Francisco, and he deserved every chance he was given to get himself to peak form and lead the team. He carried the team to the postseason last year, and he has been the balanced force under center for them this season. He hasn’t been bad — 6-2-1 with a 70 percent completion rate for 1,731 yards, 13 touchdowns and only seven interceptions (excellent for a rush-friendly team) — and he’s even setting little records for consistency and not turning the ball over.
Smith isn’t wowing anyone, but he has kept the team on track. And after watching plenty of teams implode after a quick fix that soon revealed that maybe the original player wasn’t bad as much as he was actually making the best of a bad situation around him, the 49ers should be slow to toss Smith overboard and go with a young passer who had a good night.
The allure is there, and Kaepernick will excite plenty of people watching the 49ers. But for the good of the franchise and the rest of the season, Smith has to be the man for San Francisco. The club has made plenty of bone-headed moves this past decade, and giving up consistency and quality for the dreams of a new golden boy will only cause more trouble.
No matter how hot this hand may seem.