Opinions still split on Kaepernick move, but history backs Harbaugh
Even when it feels like something entirely new has come along in the NFL -- like the head coach of a leading Super Bowl contender making a late-season starting quarterback change -- it's usually not all that novel. Not entirely.
The quarterback drama playing out in San Francisco is captivating, with pun intended regarding the emergence of Colin Kaepernick over Alex Smith. But it's not as if the 49ers would be the first team to ride a pair of starting quarterbacks to a Super Bowl berth -- if they are so destined. They wouldn't even be the first in the Bay Area.
Due to either injury or ineffectiveness, plenty of teams have changed starters somewhere along the way during the course of their Super seasons. The 1987 Washington Redskins waited until the playoffs began to name Doug Williams their No. 1 quarterback, even though Williams had started just two games that year in place of the injured Jay Schroeder.
Kaepernick's unexpected rise on the depth chart was made possible by the Week 10 concussion Smith suffered in the first half of that tie against St. Louis, reminding many of the Tom Brady-Drew Bledsoe scenario in New England in 2001. While that might be the most famous quarterback change in NFL history -- pro football's ultimate Wally Pipp-ing -- there's a fairly extensive track record of other Super Bowl clubs that disproved the theory that if you have two starting quarterbacks, you really have none.
• In 2000, despite a 5-3 record, the Baltimore Ravens benched the struggling Tony Banks after the eighth game of the season and handed his job to Trent Dilfer. The ex-Bucs starter lost the first game he opened for the Ravens, but then won 11 in a row and a Super Bowl ring as Baltimore's dominant defense led the way to glory.
• In 1990, the Bill Parcells-coached Giants lost Phil Simms to a broken foot in mid-December, but Jeff Hostetler came on to win New York's final two regular season games and three more in the postseason, helping the Giants claim their second Super Bowl title.
• The 1970 and 1971 Cowboys made it to the Super Bowl both seasons despite alternating between Craig Morton and Roger Staubach as their starter. Morton, who started in Dallas' Super Bowl V loss to Baltimore, was finally benched permanently in Week 8 of 1971, with Staubach and the Cowboys running the table the rest of the season to win the club's first Super Bowl crown.
• In 1974, Pittsburgh opened the season with Joe Gilliam, taken in 1972's 11th round, starting ahead of former No. 1 overall draft pick Terry Bradshaw. Gilliam led the Steelers to a 4-1-1 start, but Bradshaw took over for a slumping Gilliam in Week 7 and never looked back, with the Steelers winning the first of their four Super Bowl rings in the '70s.
• In 1972, the year of the 17-0 Dolphins, Miami lost starter Bob Griese with a broken leg in the fifth game of the season. Veteran Earl Morrall kept the train moving quite nicely, winning all 11 of his starts that historic season, with Griese returning to play in the second half of the AFC title game against Pittsburgh and start Super Bowl VII against Washington.
• The Redskins had their own starting quarterback tandem in 1972, with veterans Billy Kilmer and Sonny Jurgensen waging their memorable depth chart battle. Kilmer got the nod the majority of the time, but Jurgensen went 4-0 as Washington's starter that season.
And there have been other Super-season examples of successful multi-quarterback starting situations as well, with the 1985 New England Patriots (Tony Eason and Steve Grogan), the 1979 Los Angeles Rams (Pat Haden and Vince Ferragamo), the 1980 Oakland Raiders (Dan Pastorini and Jim Plunkett) and 1983 Los Angeles Raiders (Plunkett and Marc Wilson). And if you're wondering about Morrall and Johnny Unitas with the 1968 and 1970 Colts, those examples don't fit because the two veterans didn't split up starts during the regular season or the playoffs, but did wind up replacing each other mid-game in both Super Bowl III (Unitas for Morrall) and V (Morrall for Unitas).
So NFL history proves a don't-rock-the-boat-when-you're-winning approach isn't always the way to go, perhaps much to 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh's relief. While Smith's injury gave him his opening to turn to the largely untested Kaepernick, it's clear Harbaugh has a strong conviction about the 2011 second-round pick and was looking for any opportunity to get him on the field. Unless something goes horribly wrong for Kaepernick in the final five games of the regular season -- and he's 2-0 as a starter so far, with impressive wins over Chicago and New Orleans -- Smith is not getting his job back.
It's a controversial move by Harbaugh, and it was not a decision made for him by the football fates, given Smith's quick return to health. It holds danger for him in the 49ers locker room, where Smith is popular after leading San Francisco to a 20-6-1 mark the past two years, and in terms of changing the 49ers offensive formula so late in the game in 2012. But the ever-confident Harbaugh seems convinced of his rationale for the change, and thus far, Kaepernick has justified his coach's faith in him.
On Monday, I spoke with both Dilfer and ex-Baltimore head coach Brian Billick, the principal figures in the midseason quarterback change that sent the Ravens on their way to the franchise's only Super Bowl title, in 2000. Their views of Harbaugh's gamble run the gamut.
"I have disagreed with the move, but Kaepernick does add an element to that offense,'' said Dilfer, now an ESPN analyst, but also a former 49ers backup and mentor to Smith who retains close ties to the organization. "There's potential I think to disrupt a well-oiled machine, especially when it gets into the essence of the NFL season, which is the backstretch and the playoffs.
"It'll be very interesting as the book continues to be written on Kaepernick, and defenses have a few chapters to study come playoff time and devise a game plan. It'll be interesting to see if he can adapt. Jim [Harbaugh]'s a friend, and I'm very close to the 49ers, so I'll probably get in trouble for saying this, but it'll be a bad decision if they don't at least get to the NFC Championship Game. Because this team's better this year, and they got there last year with Alex Smith.''
When Billick replaced Banks with Dilfer in midseason of 2000, the Ravens were four games into a mind-boggling stretch of five consecutive games without scoring a touchdown. Harbaugh had no such no-brainer staring at him. But that doesn't mean Billick is any less convinced of the wisdom of San Francisco's quarterback change.
"This one's totally different, because Alex Smith was playing well,'' said Billick, now an analyst for both FOX and the NFL Network. "It's a bold move on Jim's part, but there's something special about this kid [Kaepernick]. Forget about this guy's ability to make plays with his legs. His throwing motion and his accuracy are eye-popping to me. The delivery of his ball reminds me a little bit of Warren Moon. Remember how effortless his throwing action was, no matter what body position he was in, and how accurate he could be? And this kid, the game's not too big for him.
"There's a lot of things that can derail it, but they obviously knew what they had in this kid. Because they saw him every single day. The only thing they didn't know was how would he do it when the bullets were for real? Well, he did it on a national stage against a damn good Chicago team. That wasn't a bunch of slappys. That was the Bears defense. Then he follows it up in as tough an environment as there is in the league, in the Superdome.''
If there's a conventional wisdom that has quickly formed around Harbaugh's quarterback call, it's that the 49ers head coach felt Smith's talents had already taken San Francisco's offense about as far as it was going to go under his leadership, and in order to slug with the offensive heavyweights in the playoffs, Kaepernick's stronger arm and deep ball, combined with his athleticism and running threat, were needed in the lineup. Smith, with his safer, more cautious style of play, was viewed as limited in terms of making the 49ers explosive on offense.
"With that defense and that running game, they don't need to throw it 45 times a game,'' Billick said. "But the 20-25 throws a game[(Kaepernick] could make could be lethal. And it doesn't matter what anybody says, there's still a hesitation about Alex Smith. And that's not fair, and probably is not right, but even in the [49ers'] building, when you're there and you talk to them privately, there's just something there.
"You've got to remember, not only did they draft Kaepernick, they went up (via trade with Denver in the second round, from 45th to 36th) to get him. It's not like he just fell to them. So everything about it says it's a great position for [the 49ers] to be in, and they can go back the other way if need be. It sucks to be Alex, but hey, it sucked to be Pete Best, the guy who left the Beatles before Ringo came in. Left at the wrong time. Sorry, man. It does suck, but that's just the way life is some times.''
There's little doubt Smith is privately steamed about the demotion, given his superb recent track record of production. But those who know him best expect him to remain professional about the situation, believing him too smart and too loyal to the organization to cause problems or a divide in the 49ers locker room. His relationship with Kaepernick is said to be great. The damage is likely in his relationship to Harbaugh, because like all NFL head coaches to some degree, Harbaugh ultimately wants his hand-chosen guy to succeed and prove the wisdom of his foresight. And he is convinced Kaepernick can lead the 49ers to their first Super Bowl in 18 years.
"Jim fought for drafting Kaepernick,'' Dilfer said. "They could have had [Andy] Dalton [who went 35th to Cincinnati, one spot ahead of where the 49ers traded up to]. Everybody wanted Dalton except him. [49ers general manager Trent] Baalke threw him a bone because it was his first year. Kaepernick was his guy. He went and worked him out, he thought he found him, and he swears to this day the only reason Kaepernick went that high was because of the momentum generated because of him. That's his guy.
"The 49ers have by far the best roster in the NFC. The only issue now is this, the quarterback decision. It's the only thing that makes anybody ask, 'How does this play out long term for this year's team?' It's a risky move. I would have said he's going to play his one game in place of Alex -- and he did great -- and then it becomes an offseason conversation, whether he's ready to be their starter.''
But that discussion did not get put on hold, and pushed into 2013. Instead, the presumed quarterback of the future in San Francisco is now the quarterback of the present. And there's nothing about the 49ers' Super Bowl dreams that need be delayed, Billick believes.
"They're the top of my pyramid now and they're going to stay there,'' said Billick, speaking specifically of the NFC. "I've been saying all year, 'Give me a team and I'll give you a couple reasons why they'll win the Super Bowl and a couple reasons why they won't.' Everybody has those issues. But I don't have the reasons why they won't win in San Francisco anymore.
"Because the only qualifier for all of us was, 'Well, can Alex Smith really on a consistent basis take you there?' But with that defense, their ability to take the ball away, their ability to run the ball and their offensive line, which may be the best in football, they've got the confidence and the pedigree right now. I don't see anybody at their level.''
Notwithstanding the sizable risk Harbaugh and the 49ers have taken, history says a quarterback change doesn't necessarily doom a Super Bowl run. In San Francisco, where so much Super Bowl history has been made, they're hoping the past once again can be relied upon to portend the future.