Saturday, January 12, 2013

49ers--QB Battle Causing Locker-Room Tension

 Don't let the smiles and the chatter about brotherhood fool you. The 49ers locker room is a hotbed of tension, which could undermine the team in tonight's crucial battle with the Green Bay Packers.

The problem? That QB competition between deposed veteran Alex Smith and new starter Colin Kaepernick. It began in November, when Smith was out with a concussion. Kaepernick, in his second year, stepped in, starting his first game against the Chicago Bears on Monday night. An instant hit, the youngster destroyed a defense that seemed impregnable, hitting 16 of 23 passes for 246 yards and two TDs. Smith hasn't played since, while Kaepernick led the Niners to the second seed in the NFC playoffs.

Many 49ers think Smith got a raw deal. That venerable rule, that a player shouldn't lose his job due to injury, was ignored by coach Jim Harbaugh. Here's what really angers the Smith faction. At the time of his concussion, he was having a great year. Everything that Kaepernick has done, the Smith faction argues, Smith could have done just as well. The Kaepernick crew is equally as passionate about him.

According to sources close to several players, tension fostered by this QB battle is killing team cameraderie. This is a time for unity, not squabbles. Locker-room conflict could derail the team's efforts to beat the Packers.

Though Smith has been trying to be a good soldier he hasn't been able to muffle his anger. Clearly he's miffed at what he considers mistreatment by Harbaugh.

Is the team better under Kaepernick? That's open to debate. Under Kaepernick, a scrambler and a superior runner, the offense is more wide open, posing a deep-passing threat missing under Smith. The offense may be more restricted, predictable and less of a scoring threat with Smith at QB, but it's less mistake-prone and, with its reliance on rushing, more in the old-fashioned smash-mouth mode, the team's identity in recent years.
Actually, the Niners can win with either QB. The key to this team is its defense, which was shaky late in the season, so it's vulnerable to  something corrosive and divisive like locker-room tension.

If the Niners, a slight, three-point favorite, lose to the Packers, which is very possible, insiders will point to this tension as a factor.
 As long as Kaepernick and Smith are the QBs, this tension won't go away.

Win or lose, you can bet this is Smith's last season as a 49er. Harbaugh is too smart to go into the fall with this acidic QB conflict eating away at the team.