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Harbaugh's Bold Decision May Have Big Payoff

Choice of Kaepernick over Smith isn't conventional, but young QB's upside may make 49ers a much more dangerous team in playoffs



    Harbaugh's Bold Decision May Have Big Payoff
    Getty Images
    Colin Kaepernick is doing what head coach Jim Harbaugh (right) is asking him to do. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

    Go ahead, pick a word.

    What Jim Harbaugh has done by selecting Colin Kaepernick as the 49ers’ starting quarterback can be described as gutsy, creative, fearless or bold.

    Or perhaps all of the above.

    What other coach would pick a second-year quarterback to lead his offense over a veteran who led it to a 13-3 record and a berth in the NFC Championship Game a year ago, then was the No. 4 ranked QB in passer rating through the first nine games of this season?

    It’s possible, of course, that Harbaugh could fool everyone and go back to Alex Smith as his starter for this Sunday’s game against the Rams in St. Louis.

    After Sunday’s victory over the Saints in New Orleans, after all, the Niners’ head coach refused to speculate on his starter against the Rams.

    “We’ll address that at a later date,” he told reporters.

    But nobody expects Smith to start now.

    In two games as the team’s No. 1 QB, Kaepernick has been terrific in victories over the Bears and Saints as the 49ers have improved to 8-2-1.

    The concussion suffered by Alex Smith against the Rams three games ago opened the door for Kaepernick to show what he can do, and what he can do is give the 49ers a higher upside at quarterback.

    As effective as Smith was in the job – and he was extremely efficient – Kaepernick brings a bit more. He has a stronger arm and can open up the 49ers vertical game. He is a terrific runner and can add yet another playmaker to a sophisticated running attack. And in the pocket, Kaepernick can sprint away from pressure, buy time and keep plays alive, as he’d done against both the Bears and Saints.

    Though the 49ers were one of the NFC favorites to reach the Super Bowl with Smith, they’ve made themselves even more dangerous by going with Kaepernick.

    For Harbaugh, it must have been a hard choice. Smith has done everything that’s been asked of him, and he’s played well. His teammates respect him and he’s a leader, on and off the field.

    Yet by going with his gut – making the hard choice and knowing that Kaepernick can make the 49ers even better than they were – Harbaugh has looked past the present to the near future (this season’s playoffs) and beyond.

    As tight end Delanie Walker told Albert Breer of NFL.com Sunday, Kaepernick is a big-time playmaker.

    “I think what makes every guy in our team say, ‘Wow,’ is that guy can run and throw a 30-yard pass on a line,” said Walker. “But I knew that he could step up and do the job well and make plays.”

    Breer notes, too, that Harbaugh always has put his quarterbacks in positions to succeed, from his first job at the University of San Diego to Stanford to the NFL. Breer notes that one NFL executive told him that Harbaugh has a “very special instinct” for creating the right environment for a QB and “a real good feel for what each quarterback can do, and (an ability) to game plan around that.”

    For Kaepernick, playing on a solid, well-balanced team, that means not having to do too much. He doesn’t have to carry the offense, or the team. He just needs to do what he’s asked.

    But, each game, he’ll be learning, gaining confidence and – perhaps – making the 49ers a much more explosive team for this year’s playoffs.

    And the credit for that goes to Harbaugh, whose decision to go with Kaepernick over Smith is unconventional – but gutsy, creative and bold.