When 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh decided to bench quarterback Alex Smith after he recovered from a concussion and to elevate Colin Kaepernick to the starting job, many proclaimed that anything less than a Super Bowl berth would be evidence that Harbaugh made the wrong decision.
Under that standard, Harbaugh knocked it out of the park.
It was a decision made both for the present and the future. Indeed, the future of the position was secured when Harbaugh and G.M. Trent Baalke made Kaepernick a second-round pick during the lockout, before Harbaugh was even able to meet with his veteran players.
The fact that Harbaugh is such a good coach delayed Kaepernick’s debut, because Harbaugh lifted Smith to new heights as a quarterback. The first pick in the 2005 draft, who amazingly was still with the team seven seasons later, played better than ever, leading the 49ers to a 13-3 record, a thrilling win over the Saints, and very nearly to the Super Bowl.
Harbaugh flipped the switch knowing that he would be exposed to short-term criticism if the 49ers didn’t at least match what they had done a year ago. But Harbaugh never wavered.
“After the [Bears] game, Jim and I sat down [in his office] and I asked him, ‘What’s your gut?‘” owner Jed York told Mike Silver of Yahoo! Sports after Sunday’s win. “He said, ‘Kaep. You OK [with that]?’ I said, ‘It’s your team. You’ve got to go after it. Whatever you think works. I can defend either decision, and I understand either decision.’
“I trust Jim. You either trust your coach or you don’t. Obviously time will tell. I think it proved to be a good move. You see the evidence. He’s playing well. Jim made a gutsy, gutsy call. And I don’t know that there’s any other coach in the league that would have made that call.”
There’s at least one — John Harbaugh would have done it.
Others may have, too. Because the head coach and his staff have the unique perspective of knowing how a quarterback performs in practice, how he works in the meeting room, how much time he spends watching film, and whether he’s just spinning his wheels or whether he’s learning and growing. That’s the biggest point I made when defending the move: Jim Harbaugh knows his guys, and he realizes which quarterback is more likely to succeed, now and in the future.
Of course, Harbaugh didn’t feel so strongly about Kaepernick in March to refrain from “evaluating” Peyton Manning. And every 49ers fan should now be happy that the “evaluation” didn’t become an acquisition.
Kaepernick is only 25, more than a decade younger than Manning. And Kaepernick is four months younger than Joe Montana was when he led the team to the first of four Super Bowl wins.