Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Why Alex Smith Should Start For the 49ers

I can't believe I'm saying this, but QB Alex Smith should be starting for the San Francisco 49ers, not Colin Kaepernick.

I haven't been Smith's biggest fan. In fact I've accused him of holding back the offense. With Smith at QB, the Niners don't score very often and are backed into many close games, often by inferior teams. But the Niners have one of the top five defenses in the league. They win with defense, David Akers field-goal kicking (though he did blow the Rams game in OT) and their modest offense, with RBs Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter grinding out 2-6 yard gains while eating up the clock. That's their formula. That's how, with Smith at QB, they came within two Kyle Williams blunders of going to the Super Bowl early this year.

But now, since Smith suffered a concussion on Nov. 11, young backup Kaepernick is in the mix. He performed creditably in the Rams game, which was a tie instead of a Niners' blowout due to defensive lapses. Then Kaepernick, in front of a national TV audience on Monday night, led to Niners to a rout of the tough Bears, who may have the league's best defense. Kaepernick passed for 184 yards in the first half. Smith doesn't usually rack up that many yards in an entire game.

A running threat, Kaepernick spreads defenses, opening up lanes for the runners. Unlike Smith he also throws long, with startling accuracy, which also spreads defenses. With Kaepernick at QB, the Niners' offense is much more dangerous, more likely to score points and make life easier for the defense. He also allows offensive coordinator Greg Roman to tap into his creativity and experiment with various wrinkles.
Then there's Smith, who can't do half of what Kaepernick can do. Smith is a lead-footed runner who can't throw long very well. With him at QB defenses put more players close to the line, hampering the runners as well as the short passing game. All this keeps the score low, putting more pressure on the Niners' defense.

Sounds like an argument for Kaepernick, doesn't it? Well, it's not. Smith should retain his starting job. First and foremost, a player shouldn't lose his job through injury. That's a rule that all pro football teams follow. Coach Jim Harbaugh shouldn't break it in this case. Also in Smith's favor is that he's a winner. With him in charge, despite his deficiencies, the Niners have turned into one of the best teams in the NFL. That's partly because he does not, as he did early in his career, make mistakes. This year is one of his best. He's not only hitting passes at a league best 70% clip but he also has a gaudy 104.1 rating, third in the NFL. How can you bench a guy who's playing that well?

Harbaugh may not have a choice this Sunday. Smith may not be cleared by doctors to play in New Orleans against the Saints. But if not this Sunday, sooner or later Harbaugh will have to make a choice.

The coach brought this upon himself. From the start he should have said Smith is my QB and when he's cleared to play he'll regain his starting position. But by saying nothing he inadvertently started a QB controversy.

That can fracture a team, like it did a few decades ago when the Niners had both an aging but still effective Joe Montana and a young Steve Young. If Harbaugh is smart, he'll save himself and the team a lot of grief by giving Smith his starting job back.

Anyway, Smith deserves it.