Quarterback Controversy: Did Colin Kaepernick Just Steal Alex Smith’s Starting Job?

Photo credit: Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press

There’s an old adage in the NFL — one that most coaches are more than happy to repeat to the media ad nauseum — that says you can’t lose your starting job to an injury. It’s a guideline that usually comes in handy: it eases tension in the locker room when an injured veteran sees his understudy perform well in his absence and serves to inoculate a team against the inevitable barrage of media inquiries about who should be starting.

It’s also a guideline that most coaches are willing to toss aside whenever doing so could lead to more wins on the field. Protecting players’ feelings suddenly becomes a lot less important when neglecting to do so shifts the needle in the direction of the almighty W.

Based on what we saw out of the San Fransisco 49ers and backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick on Monday Night Football last night, starter Alex Smith should be worried.

Kaepernick was efficient and even electric at times, leading his team to a 32-7 trouncing of the 7-2 Bears. It certainly helped that Kaepernick’s defense was at the top of its game — sophomore rush linebacker Aldon Smith had a staggering 5 1/2 sacks — but some of that may have resulted from the fact that the defense was feeding off the energy Kaepernick brought to the team.

When questioned after the game about whether he would stick with the hot hand and leave Smith on the bench even after he’s recovered from the concussion that held him out of last night’s game, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh was noncommittal:

“I usually tend to go with the hot hand and we’ve got two quarterbacks with hot hands.”

With those words, Harbaugh just opened the doors to controversy. Now he has both an incumbent starter and an emerging star who both don’t know their place on the team.

Of course, Harbaugh is a very smart man. It’s quite possible he knew the effect his words would have and he spoke them with clear intent (to light a fire under Smith, presumably). Then again, Harbaugh has proven to be an emotional man and he might simply have made a statement he’d have rather kept private.

Smith is expected to return from injury in the very near future, so we’ll get an idea of Harbaugh’s plans when we see the team’s practice reports this week. Though it’s a gross exaggeration to say the 49ers have another Montana-Young situation on their hands, perhaps the reality is that a team whose one weakness was thought to be behind center now has more quarterback talent on the roster than it knows what to do with.

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