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What If … Jim Harbaugh had stuck with Alex Smith as his 49ers quarterback?

by Austin Murphy

To this day he remains the CPA of QBs, risk-averse to a stultifying fault. And yet, on this fateful occasion Alex Smith was not content to take what the defense gave him.

Flush with confidence and completing nearly 70% of his passes through nine weeks of the 2012 season, Smith found himself trailing the St. Louis Rams 14–0 in the first quarter at Candlestick Park. He disdained wide-open running back Frank Gore on a five-yard curl, preferring to keep his eyes downfield, until the pocket collapsed. Scrambling toward the left sideline, with linebacker Jo‑Lonn Dunbar closing like a cheetah, Smith did not slide.

“He just got hammered right on his name-plate,” Fox analyst Tim Ryan exclaimed during a slow-motion replay of the helmet-to-helmet hit that altered San Francisco, NFL and, it says here, American history.

Second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick came in, rallied the 49ers to a 24–24 tie and kept the job. He led San Francisco to that season’s Super Bowl (a loss to the Ravens that hinged on one play) and to the NFC championship game a year later. In the latter matchup, in Seattle, Kap’s three fourth-quarter turnovers triggered the entropic spiral that has dragged this franchise to its current depths. 

But what if coach Jim Harbaugh, upon further reflection in 2012, had (fairly, reasonably) concluded, You know what? Alex is playing the best football of his life—it’s unfair for him to lose his job over a concussion, especially when he was cleared to play two weeks later.

Had Smith remained the starter, both he and Harbaugh would still be in the Bay Area, and the 49ers would have at least one more Lombardi Trophy in their already crowded case. (Harbaugh’s current team, Michigan, on the other hand, would be further from BCS title contention than ever. After two meh seasons in Ann Arbor, Greg Schiano would be on the hot seat, with Les Miles once again tweeting desperately for the job.) 

Let’s walk through this alternate reality. By sticking with Smith, Harbaugh closes his widening rift with general manager Trent Baalke. They become running partners, as they had been in earlier, happier times, resulting in increased collaboration on personnel matters (and preventing what in reality would become a shocking degradation of the 49ers’ once-loaded roster over Baalke’s next three seasons).

And what of Kaepernick? On the basis of those flashes he showed against the Rams, the desperate Browns deal for him. Maybe he starts a handful of games in Cleveland relieving Brian Hoyer, maybe he still melts brains with his play—either way, he becomes renowned for his activism. Kap’s protest switch is flipped in the fall of 2014, in the wake of the fatal shooting, by a Cleveland police officer, of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who’d been holding a toy gun.

Working with former Cleveland running back Jim Brown and Browns receiver and sometimes-activist Andrew Hawkins, Kaepernick decides to use his platform to mobilize voters, persuading them that they can make a difference (rather than telling reporters, as he did in real life, that he saw no point in voting). Kaepernick’s message really resonates, particularly with African-Americans (88% of whom voted for Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in real life). The added turnout pushes Clinton past Republican nominee Donald Trump in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, three pivotal states in the Electoral College that in reality he won by just 77,000 combined votes.

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan wins the 2016 NFL’s Most Valuable Player award, same as in real life. But President Clinton regards Kap as the true MVP.