Kaepernick shines against Bears, gives 49ers quarterback dilemma
SAN FRANCISCO -- And your starting quarterback is ... ?
That answer will have to wait for the 49ers, whose situation got a lot more interesting Monday night after Colin Kaepernick's sublime performance in his first career start.
Facing a defense that was first in takeaways, fifth against the pass and 10th overall, the second-year pro completed 16-of-23 passes for 243 yards, two touchdowns, no turnovers and a 133.1 rating in a 32-7 rout in Candlestick Park.
Six minutes into the fourth quarter, Pro Bowl tight end Vernon Davis approached him on the sideline and bowed before Kaepernick.
"I respect him, I love him, I'm so proud of him at that moment," Davis would say. "The ball that he threw me (his last reception, when he didn't get first down), it was one of those balls that you see Tom Brady throw. Second window, right on the money. I was surprised. I didn't expect the ball to come. We've run that play quite a few times, and the tight end usually doesn't get the ball on that play. But he saw it and he just put it there."
Kaepernick led the Niners to two field goals and a pair of touchdowns on his first four possessions. At the half he was 12-of-15 for 184 yards and a score. He could not have looked more comfortable in the pocket if he were wearing his favorite slippers.
Afterward, the line of questioning revolved around whether he would get a second straight start for Alex Smith, who was held out after showing symptoms on Sunday from a concussion he sustained a week earlier.
"We'll see," coach Jim Harbaugh said afterward. "You usually tend to go with the guy who has the hot hand, and we've got two quarterbacks who have a hot hand. I thought Colin did an outstanding job."
At this point there's no way of knowing if Smith will be cleared medically to return Sunday at New Orleans in a rematch of the second-round NFC playoff game won by San Francisco last season. Smith took a majority of the practice reps until Saturday, when the 49ers began planning for the possibility that he would not be available.
Smith passed his neurological tests early in the week, but on Sunday he failed the final exam that would have cleared him to play against the Bears. That opened the door for Kaepernick, who was eager to step through.
Protected by one of the league's best lines, he consistently had time to sit back and go through his reads. Coordinator Greg Roman also did a fantastic job of mixing his calls, using play-action early against a defense probably looking for the 49ers to break in Kaepernick slowly.
His first pass was an eight-yard completion to wideout Mario Manningham along the left sideline. His second pass was a 22-yard gain on a corner route to Davis. His third attempt was a 12-yard hook-up with Davis on a crossing route. And his fourth attempt was a quick-hitter for three yards to Kyle Williams.
So much conservatism.
On his next series he found tight end Delanie Walker for nine yards, Williams for 57 on a deep corner route, then Davis for a three-yard score in the right corner of the end zone.
At that point it was clear there was no throw he couldn't make. He displayed the arm strength to go downfield and the touch to allow a receiver to run under the ball. The passing game, which had been painfully horizontal in recent weeks, was suddenly stretching the field. Its 9.3 yards per attempt was the offense's highest in the last five games.
"He played great," said wideout Michael Crabtree. "He was like the motor in the car. He got it going and had us humming."
Said Kaepernick: "It just felt good to be back out on the football field playing. I thought we did a good job as an offense. ... I wanted to come out and show what I was capable of and show I can be a starter. That's what I've been trying to prove since I've been in the league."
His most impressive pass might have been his 10-yard scoring toss to Crabtree early in the third quarter. He took the snap in a shotgun formation, sensed pressure up the middle and slid to his left. Before a Bears defender could close on him, he went through his reads before flicking the ball to the near corner. He made it look easy, but it was a tough throw considering he was throwing against his body.
So, what now?
Unlike fans, coaches tend to not be prisoners of the moment. They like continuity when things are going well. Smith is 19-6-1 as a starter the last two seasons, including the playoffs. The best game of his career -- considering the stakes and the multiple comebacks he led in the final minutes -- was the 36-32 win over the Saints last season in the playoffs. Before sustaining his concussion against the Rams, Smith had completed 25 of his last 27 passes over two games.
Kaepernick, no doubt, was impressive against the Bears. Tremendously impressive. But even he acknowledged one game isn't a large enough sample size to draw conclusions. However ...
If Kaepernick can do what he did against a talented defense, with limited reps in practice during the week, and no starts on his resume, Harbaugh could decide the former Nevada star's upside is worth the risk. Kaepernick is the only player in NCAA history to pass for 10,000 yards and rush for 4,000 in a career, and he was the first player to put together three consecutive seasons of 2,000 yards passing and 1,000 yards rushing.
If nothing else Kaepernick has earned more playing time. He got game reps earlier in the season, but the coaches backed off after it appeared to disrupt Smith's rhythm. Those days likely are gone.
"That was one of those nights of a lifetime," linebacker Clark Haggans said of Kaepernick. "He didn't know he was going to play until the night before. It's almost like coming in in the bottom of the ninth, two out and getting the strikeout. He'll never forget this."
Nor will his coaches, which means we'll have to wait before learning who'll start at quarterback on Sunday.