Jim Harbaugh’s Kaepernick Gambit

No, The Kaepernick Gambit is not the next Bond movie with Daniel Craig or a cheap Jason Bourne knock off.  The big story going into week 12 was 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh’s decision to bench Alex Smith in favor of Colin Kaepernick.

After the Niners’ surprising leap forward last season, a lot of people forgot that the Nevada QB was taken with the fourth pick in the 2nd round of the draft, clearly with a view toward building for the future.

But the 49ers turned out to be a very formidable team with Alex Smith at QB, and Kaepernick rested on the shelf last season, waiting his turn.

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After Smith was injured two weeks ago, Kaepernick got his chance to start against the rigorous Chicago Bears’ defense, and he played well.  Too well.  Kaepernick torched the Bears, going 16-23 for 243 yards and 2 TDs in a 32-7 shellacking.

But did that justify Alex Smith losing his job?  Smith’s opus from first round bust to game manager to elite passer wasn’t yet complete, but he was the NFL’s fifth rated passer this season and led the league in completion percentage at a remarkable 70%.  Kaepernick had some pretty fancy shoes to fill, starting against the porous defense of the New Orleans Saints.

Put me in coach – will Alex Smith get another chance?
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How did it work out?  Well the Niners got a win, but their defense, who forced 2 turnovers, scored 14 points and pressured Drew Brees all day was the real difference in the game.  Kaepernick was good, but really not great, and it’s hard to argue Alex Smith couldn’t have done just as well.  In the long run, this move will be judged on how the 49ers and Kaepernick play in the playoffs, but I find myself wondering what Smith, who is only the fifth rated passer in the entire NFL, could have done differently to keep his job.

Moreover, if Harbaugh goes back to Smith at some point this season, will the displaced starter be able to come back in and play as well as he did before getting benched?  If not, the move will blow up in Jim Harbaugh’s face.

No one would have batted an eye had Harbaugh kept Smith in the starters’ job, even if the 49ers lost in the playoffs behind a less than stellar effort from the QB, so you have to admire the coach for making the risky, rather than the easy, decision.  That sometimes distinguishes a great coach from merely a good one.  But in the NFL, what distinguishes a good coach from a bad one is making the right decision, and if this one turns out not to be, a lot of people will be wondering just what Jim Harbaugh cost his team by going out on a limb.


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Rob Lazlo

Rob Lazlo lives in Atlantic City, NJ and is a lifelong Philadelphia sports fan, following the Phillies, Eagles, Flyers and Sixers. A former professional musician, he toured with the USO and visited Greenland, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Bahrain and many other locales. Rob is a big science fiction fan and loves movies, television, cooking, music and, of course, sports of all kinds. He works as a business consultant and is happily divorced with three children. For other hobbies, Rob plays sports titles video games and dabbles in online games. He also enjoys reading and following politics.

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