We’re familiar with the etiquette of role reversal hereabouts, so we know how this delicate business works. The marquee quarterback gets hurt. His understudy comes in and wins a bunch of games. The marquee man returns but is handed a clipboard and cap and told to wait in the wings while the understudy stays in the spotlight.
So it was for Drew Bledsoe and Tom Brady in 2001, and so it is now with the San Francisco 49ers as Alex Smith watches Colin Kaepernick perform the job that once was his but may never be again.
“I think it was a unique situation here, two guys that we believe in and believe can win games for us,” coach Jim Harbaugh observed as his squad prepared for Sunday night’s prime-time showdown with the Patriots in Foxborough. “In picking one it’s, who do you think can give you the best chance for this next game?”
This game is the Niners’ biggest of the season as they cross a continent to take on a New England group that is fresh off an evisceration of the Texans and that hasn’t lost a December home date in a decade. If San Francisco wins, it will clinch a return trip to the playoffs. If Seattle also loses to Buffalo, the 49ers will win the NFC West and position themselves for a first-round bye.
Not that Smith couldn’t have gotten them there but for an untimely knock to the noggin from St. Louis linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar on Veterans Day. Last year, Smith led his mates to within a muffed punt and an overtime field goal of the Super Bowl, having won 13 regular-season games and beaten the Saints with two soul-crushing drives in the final four minutes. “They’re putting playoff experience on the shelf because they believe this guy [Kaepernick] gives them a better chance to win a Super Bowl,” remarked NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth, who’ll be providing color for Sunday’s game.
Harbaugh has been taking a calculated risk, much as Patriots coach Bill Belichick did 11 years ago when he stuck with Brady after Bledsoe returned from a two-month absence after a hit by Jets linebacker Mo Lewis sheared a blood vessel in his chest. The considerations involved were simple and singular. “To win,” Belichick said when the topic was brought up last week. “There are no other considerations.”
It wasn’t that the 49ers weren’t winning this season or that Smith wasn’t playing well. San Francisco was 6-2 when he sustained his concussion against the Rams and Smith, who’d completed seven of his eight passes that day, including a touchdown on his final one, was leading the league in completion percentage and was fifth in QB rating.
Kaepernick stepped in and rallied the Niners to a 24-24 tie in the final minute. While Smith was recovering, Kaepernick led San Francisco to a pair of impressive triumphs — a 32-7 beatdown of the Bears that was the biggest margin in the series in nine years and a 31-21 decision at New Orleans that sent the Saints into a tailspin.
So when Smith was pronounced ready for duty the following week, Harbaugh decided to ride the hot hand in the rematch with the Rams. “It [stinks],” said Smith after he’d been told he’d be a paid spectator. “I don’t know what else to tell you. I feel like the only thing I did to lose my job was to get a concussion.”
The unwritten rule is that an established starter gets his job back as soon as he’s healthy. But it didn’t work that way for Bledsoe and it hasn’t for Smith, even though Kaepernick made two big errors — a safety and a picked-off pitchout — that helped the Rams get to overtime and win. “This isn’t pee-wee football, this is about winning championships,” said Collinsworth, who was a Bengals wide receiver for eight seasons and who made three Pro Bowls. “Take it from a guy who lost two Super Bowls, that’s the only thing that matters. If it’s about, am I going to hurt somebody’s feelings, nobody cares.”
Ken Anderson had been Cincinnati’s quarterback for 14 years when Boomer Esiason arrived in 1984. The next season, Anderson was the backup and never started another game. “The transition is always a hard one,” said Collinsworth. “It’s not a democracy.”
Role reversal is a common tale, which is why we have quarterback controversies. Unwritten rules aside, players understand that the joke about NFL meaning Not For Long is accepted reality. “When you’re on a team you’re supposed to support the team in whatever way the coach needs you to support the team,” Brady said. “When you’re not playing, you support the guys that are playing. You help out in practice and then when you get your opportunity you try to go in there and support the team by playing. Ultimately it’s about winning games. It’s not about an individual, it’s about doing what’s best for the team.”
Playing the helpful teammate was particularly difficult for Bledsoe, who’d been the starter for eight years and had signed a $100 million contract during the offseason, but he followed the script as written, even after he went back to the sideline for the Super Bowl after coming in when Brady hurt his ankle to direct the Patriots to victory over the Steelers in the AFC title match. “I had great support from all of the quarterbacks, especially Drew, at the time,” recalled Brady, who was standing next to Bledsoe when Adam Vinatieri kicked the historic field goal against the favored Rams that gave New England its first championship.
Smith may not be enthralled with his unhelmeted status but he accepts the assignment. “He’s been great,” said Kaepernick. “He’s helped me with everything I’ve asked. Even on the sideline he’s gone over looks with me, making sure I’m seeing everything.”
The 49ers have a long history of multiple quarterbacks. Frankie Albert shared the job with Y.A. Tittle, Tittle with John Brodie, Brodie with Steve Spurrier. So nobody was shocked when the Niners took Kaepernick in the second round in the 2011 draft. He’d been the feared gunslinger in Nevada’s pistol offense, the only Bowl Subdivision quarterback ever to pass for 10,000 yards and rush for 4,000 in a career. Kaepernick ran and threw for 420 yards and five touchdowns in his starting debut, an epic 69-67, four-overtime shootout loss to Boise State. As a senior he rallied the Wolf Pack from 17 points down to the 34-31 overtime victory that ended Boise State’s 24-game winning streak on “Blue Friday.”
Kaepernick was a game-breaker and playing for Harbaugh, who called NFL signals for 14 years, it was inevitable that he would see the field before long.
So far, Kaepernick has come as advertised. “He’s playing with a lot of poise and is beyond his years,” said Harbaugh. “He’s produced. He’s made big plays with his arm and his feet and with his mind.”
Kaepernick is spare enough with his sentences that they won’t violate a play clock. “What you see is what he is and who he is,” reckoned Harbaugh. “I would call him a man of enough words. There’s no fluff.”
Aldon Smith, the Niners’ two-fisted linebacker, won’t play catch with Kaepernick anymore. “I can hear the ball coming before it gets to me,” Smith told him.
Randy Moss, who has caught 975 balls in his career, had a finger dislocated by what he called Kaepernick’s “Randy Johnson fastball.” “It hurt, it really did,” testified Moss. “I tried not to show any tears. I don’t know if they caught me crying or not.”
What sets Kaepernick apart, though, is his running. Last week, needing a first down to ice a victory against the Dolphins with two minutes to play, he took off for a 50-yard touchdown, the longest by a quarterback in franchise history.
“He read it real good,” said Frank Gore, the 49ers’ perennial 1,000-yard running back. “Everybody came to me and Mr. Everything did his thing.”
It wasn’t long ago that Alex Smith was Mr. Everything in St. Francis’s town, and he may be again.
This week, as for the last four, the huddle belongs to Kaepernick, and likely will as long as the Ws keep coming.
“That’s the only thing we’re really here for, is to win,” Belichick mused. “What else is there? I don’t know. What else is there to talk about?”