As we approach the one-year anniversary of Alex Smith being demoted by San Francisco 49ers head coach, Jim Harbaugh, in favor of the upstart, fleet-footed Colin Kaepernick, I believe it is important to look back on this decision and give it some perspective. Since being demoted, Smith has watched from the sidelines as Kaepernick went on a record-breaking run to the Super Bowl, had his life in California uprooted as he was transported to Kansas City and became the backbone of the lone remaining undefeated team in the NFL.
After the tumultuous season in which sports talk shows repeatedly debated who had the “hot hand” in San Francisco, who would have thought that events would have transpired the way they have for Smith?
I did, and I’m proud of it.
Most people scoffed at me for saying that Harbaugh was delusional for replacing Smith when he had the third-highest QB rating in the league and a completion percentage over 70 percent. “Kaepernicking” was too cool to pass up. As a committed 49ers fan, it was agonizing to hear that the organization was turning its back on the guy who had brought us within an overtime field goal of the Super Bowl the year before and was on pace to do the same, if not better, that year.
I remember walking into class the day after Kaepernick’s impressive first start and having to deal with all my friends immediately jumping on the Kaepernick bandwagon. I bickered with them for hours about the topic, but instead of raising my white flag and conceding that Kaepernick could also play at the level of a Super Bowl-contending quarterback, I held my ground and wore my number-11 jersey with pride. They were quick to forget the epic last drive Smith proctored in the waning seconds against the Saints in the playoffs the year before; I, on the other hand, still get goose bumps watching tight end Vernon Davis snag the ball in the end zone between two Saints defenders and immediately break down into tears.
Alex Smith was a winner at the time he lost his job, and I felt awful seeing the 49ers push him away because of the read-option fad. Sure, Kaepernick has a rocket of an arm and can scamper outside of the pocket with the speed and vision of a running back, but that wasn’t what I believed the 49ers needed. They had a stout defense and versatile running game that made the quarterback’s job simple: Don’t turn the ball over. Smith fit this role perfectly, micro-managing each game and efficiently moving the ball forward without making any costly errors. The 49ers as a whole were wired to win, and playing Kaepernick was a wild card that could overthrow everything the team had worked for.
A year later, I can definitely say I was right, or at least not wrong, about Alex Smith. Kaepernick is most definitely capable as a NFL starting quarterback, and his running ability is a unique element, but I’ll be the first to say it: The 49ers would have made the Super Bowl regardless of who was under center last year. With a perfect record and comparable stats to Kaepernick, all signs point to Smith still being the “hot hand” this year. In fact, it is when Kaepernick plays a similar style to Smith that the 49ers have the most success.
Surprised? Not me.
I thought differently from the beginning and never wavered from my opinion, even though it wasn’t popular or the “sexy” pick. Watching Alex Smith maneuver his team downfield may not be the most exciting thing to watch, but is that what matters in the NFL? Take one look at the Philadelphia Eagles’ pedestrian 3-4 record while utilizing a high-octane offense, and then talk to me.
It didn’t matter that Kaepernick’s number-7 jersey quickly became one of the top selling in the NFL or that he was appearing on the cover of GQ. Smith had intangibles that took a few seasons and some consistent coaching to make noticeable. As soon as the 49ers traded him to the Chiefs, I was well aware that Kansas City was now going to be good, despite its horrid record from the year before. Most thought I was crazy when I said the Chiefs were going to be a playoff team this year just because of Alex Smith. They claimed that he was a “system quarterback” and would be useless elsewhere.
Transforming last year’s worst team into the lone remaining undefeated team is no easy task, but Alex Smith has done it.
Put simply, intuition goes a long way. Everyone around you can be saying one thing, but trusting one’s gut when it comes to decision-making is always paramount. Whether it be choosing between cutting the red or green wire or trying to decide between choice A and B on a multiple-choice exam, going with what you believe first will most often be your best bet. I gained this knowledge debating over two quarterbacks, and I’m happy to say I’m no longer just following what others around me dictate, even when it seems I’m the lone dissenter—and I have Alex Smith to thank for solidifying that.
Mark Schreiber is a Trinity freshman. His column runs every other Friday. Send Mark a message on Twitter @MarkSchreib.