Colin Kaepernick exploded onto the national scene two years ago, leading the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl. At the time, it undoubtedly seemed as though the team’s future was more promising with Kaepernick under center instead of Alex Smith. The former No. 1 overall pick had exceeded expectations under coach Jim Harbaugh, but Kaepernick’s dangerous dual-threat capabilities and cannon arm couldn’t be ignored.
So the team shipped Smith off to Kansas City in March 2013 for two draft picks, and watched as the two quarterbacks’ respective playoff outings the following season justified the trade. Kaepernick guided the Niners to the NFC Championship Game while the Chiefs suffered an embarrassing 45-44 comeback defeat to the Colts. After Andrew Luck tossed the go-ahead touchdown, Smith couldn’t drive Kansas City into field goal range with more than four minutes to work with.
Coming into this season, there’s not a team in the NFL that would have preferred having Smith over Kaepernick. But now?
Most teams would still probably pick Kaepernick for the long-term, just based on his potential. But in a one-game vacuum, some coaches might prefer Smith. He’s competent enough as a passer and is far more adept at avoiding turnovers.
Smith would never be confused for someone who stuffs the stat sheet. But since throwing 27 picks in his first 25 NFL games, he’s settled into the niche of being someone who won’t make back-breaking mistakes and can occasionally win you some games with his arm. That holds plenty of value in the NFL.
Kaepernick, meanwhile, has seen his interception rate grow and his completion rate fall since his 2012 debut campaign despite being surrounded by more talented receivers with each passing season. Neither trend is particularly drastic, but throwing 16 touchdowns and committing 13 turnovers this year has been enough to silence any debates over whether Kaepernick is “elite” or not. The former teammates actually possess eerily similar passing statistics this season. They’ve both thrown 16 touchdowns in 13 games. Kaepernick has thrown for about 20 more yards per game, but also has four more interceptions. That gives Smith a slightly better passer rating (92.2) than Kaepernick (85.1).
Kaepernick has a reputation for being a more dangerous runner, but he truly doesn’t have a huge advantage in that aspect, either. Since the beginning of the 2013 season, Kaepernick has 173 rushes for 903 yards (5.2 yards per carry). Smith has gained 654 yards on 120 carries for 5.5 yards per attempt.
So, would this 49ers team be in better shape with Smith at the helm?
This isn’t meant to question the benefits San Francisco has enjoyed from sticking with Kaepernick and jettisoning Smith. Niners general manager Trent Baalke turned the two original picks obtained in the trade (a second-rounder and a conditional pick) into five selections that brought Carlos Hyde, Chris Borland and Stevie Johnson to San Francisco.
But Kaepernick clearly provides more of a roller-coaster experience for fans, which can lead to thrilling highs and gut-wrenching lows.
He can be unstoppable when he’s playing to his potential, like when he carried the 49ers to a 45-31 victory over Green Bay in his playoff debut (263 passing yards, 181 rushing yards and four total touchdowns). But his inconsistent accuracy can pop up at any time and send San Francisco spiraling down into an epic collapse.
The Niners have too much talent to lose to the Bears, Rams and Raiders this year, but they did — in no small part to Kaepernick throwing for three scores and five picks in those contests. The defeat to Oakland this past weekend was perhaps the most damaging evidence yet to suggest Kaepernick has regressed in his two-plus years under center.
He threw a pair of interceptions against the Raiders and was sacked five times by a defense that previously ranked last in the league with 12 sacks through 12 games. He also racked up three delay of game penalties after failing to get his post-huddle calls relayed on time, taking over the lead among all 49ers in penalties this season (7). Smith has been flagged just twice for the Chiefs this year.
At this point, it’d be a bit over-the-top to suggest Kaepernick should lose his starting job. But he’s about to become a lot more expensive after this season. And if Jim Harbaugh leaves San Francisco next month, as is widely expected, Kaepernick will be without the head coach who anointed him the starter and effectively forced the franchise to trade Smith.
Surprisingly, the jury is still out on whether Harbaugh made the right decision.
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