08 December 2012

Wally Pipp had a headache, too.

Beware the Ides of November.
Like a lot of 49ers fans, I feel for Alex Smith. Like a lot of 49ers fans, I like Colin Kaepernick. Like a lot of 49ers fans, I agree with all the pundits and prognosticators: Colin has a "higher ceiling"; "gives the coaching staff more options"; "puts the team in a better position to win."

Whatever the cliché, it doesn't take a trained eye to see that the offense is far more dynamic with Colin than it is with Alex, and it doesn't take a sensitive soul to be stirred by his long, accurate bombs down the sideline. Who among us didn't get butterflies in their stomach when he dropped that ball into Kyle Williams' mitts to open up the Monday night dismantling of Da Bears?

Without question, Alex is a master gamesmith, and I mean that with the utmost respect. Alex is a smart football player – which some might consider to be a contradiction in terms. He is a savvy football player. But he is also a limited football player. More acutely, he is a limited quarterback. And he knows it. So he plays it safe. And for a year and a half, Harbaugh and Friends were willing to play it his way, crafting a playbook around his particular talents: short crossing routes, screens, and a heaping dose of Frank Gore up the middle. Alex responded by going 19-5 and leading this team within two muffed punts of a Super Bowl berth.

But somewhere in the ether around the Great Draw of 2012, the honeymoon came to a screeching halt, ending with Alex dazed and confused on the sideline, unaware of his own surroundings, let alone the powers that were conspiring against his future as the 49ers starting quarterback. I take no issue with the decision to proceed with Colin Kaepernick at the helm. I think it's a good call for the long-term success of this team. And I'd rather keep Harbaugh's heart from blowing a gasket out of frustration with having to make due with Alex Smith over the rest of the season. But this whole deal has rubbed me wrong from the beginning, and I may as well add my two cents to the pile.

I like Jim Harbaugh. As a USC alum, that's hard for me to admit. I think he's a tremendous motivator and a damn fine coach. It was obvious from his work at Stanford, and it's just as obvious with the Niners. But I have to say he really mucked up what could have been a very clean break. Like a dude who can't quite bring himself to break up with his steady in order to sleep with the supermodel, he waited for an opening, an out, an excuse. Had he sat down with Alex and Colin prior to the Great Draw and told them where he wanted to go with the team, I would have had no problem with the move, and I don't think Alex could've either.

But Harbaugh didn't do that. He used the opportunity presented by an unfortunate injury to have his cake and eat it, too. And while I won't besmirch Coach's character over what seems to be a singular incident, it leaves me questioning his leadership skills, among other things. Had Alex not been concussed in the first Rams game, would he still be the starter on this team? Or did Harbaugh see something in practice that made him think Colin's time was coming soon? If he's wanted to roll with Kaep since he traded up to draft him in 2011, why not let Alex go to the birds (or the Dolphins) and start with #7 under center from day one of camp?

In 2010, the Giants' brain trust decided to open the season with Bengie Molina behind the dish and give Gerald "Buster" Posey a few more months of marinading in Fresno. They signed Bengie to a one-year deal, and while the writing wasn't exactly on the wall, Bengie could read the script. When Buster came up in May, it was a gradual transition. Like Harbaugh with Kaep, Bochy found ways to work Posey's bat into the lineup, at first base, catching every fifth day, then every third day. By the time July rolled around, it was only natural that Bengie move on and Buster take his place. Bengie could have taken offense, but he understood the rules of engagement. So he took his lumps to Texas and got to face off against his former mates in the World Series. He even got a ring for his efforts.

If the 49ers win the Super Bowl this season, Alex Smith will get a ring. but he'll earn it wearing a headset — or his helmet — on the sideline. He'll have to watch Harbaugh's new protegé get the pregame pad pops while he sucks down cup after cup of 'Rade, crunching the wax paper in his tiny hands and cursing the day he went headfirst up the middle. And he'll wonder if Harbaugh called the play on purpose. Okay, maybe that'll just be me.

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