NEW ORLEANS --The 49ers' shiny new toy at quarterback continued to show off his bells and whistles here Sunday. Colin Kaepernick started the game and played pretty well -- terrific at times -- as he helped to orchestrate a 31-21 victory over the New Orleans Saints.Alex Smith, the man Kaepernick replaced, stood on the sideline and tried to look supportive. Smith, whose concussion in a game two weeks ago allowed Kaepernick to take the job, was cleared to play Sunday but did not. After the victory, Smith said that he thinks he "should" start the next game but "doesn't expect anything." Meanwhile, 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh knew exactly what the first postgame question would be. So before it could even be asked, he tempted to be proactive.
"I hope that everybody concentrates on the actual game," Harbaugh said.
Right. Fat chance.
In pro football, nothing titillates or excites a fan base more than a quarterback controversy -- or in the case of these 49ers, a mildly frothy quasi-debate about whether Kaepernick or Smith deserves the keys to the offense right now.
Harbaugh, in answering the question, still insisted that Kaepernick is not the locked-in, new full-time starter, saying that the 49ers coaches "will look at the game (video) and make the decision." But the way things felt here Sunday inside the Superdome, the decision is tilted 90 percent in Kaepernick's favor -- even if Kaepernick himself did not buy into that.
"That would be the coach's decision," he said. "I keep my head down and just keep working." And that's working quite splendidly so far. Kaepernick said he did not learn for certain that he would open the game until 10 p.m. Saturday at a team meeting, when Harbaugh announced to the team that Kaepernick would get the ball. Sunday, the most impressive thing he did was walk into the Superdome's mammoth house of drunken noise -- the late afternoon local kickoff time meant more pregame drinking time -- and refused to melt down or be rattled for more than a few seconds.
Indeed, for several stretches during the game, the feeling was the same as it must have been in 2001 with the New England Patriots, when starter Drew Bledsoe was injured and his young backup -- Tom Brady -- stepped onto the field and never lost the starting job. Although Bledsoe was a very good winning quarterback, it was plain to the naked eye that Brady was stronger and could extend plays to find open receivers.
The identical sensibility crept onto the field during the 49ers' second drive of the game. When the loudness created confusion as Kaepernick tried to vocalize the proper formation, he calmly called timeout. Then, on the next play, he completed a perfect 40-yard dart of a pass to receiver Mario Manningham. Two plays later, Kaepernick ran the read-option play and fooled the Saints and most of the crowd with a fake handoff before sprinting into the end zone himself with the ball.
"The guys made the blocks in front of me," Kaepernick said. "All I had to do was run it in." On both the 40-yard dart and the touchdown run, Kaepernick demonstrated why Harbaugh and his staff have seemingly gone pie-eyed over their new toy. The second-year quarterback from Nevada clearly has a stronger arm and faster feet than Smith. The read-option can be almost impossible to stop if run properly. Harbaugh waxed near-poetic in explaining Kaepernick's proficiency on the play.
"He has a real knack for it," Harbaugh said. "He has a special ability, honed it in college and has taken it to the pro level. He can cover ground real fast, and he has an eye for making the read. He came with that ability. I take no credit for that one." Does that sound like a man who wants to reboot Kaepernick into his old backup role?
To be sure, the shiny, new toy was not perfect against the Saints. Kaepernick grew flustered late in the second quarter when he was in the shotgun and a center snap landed at his feet. Hurrying, he reached down for the ball and came up firing without looking closely at the coverage. The ball was intercepted.
"I was trying to make a play out of something that wasn't there," Kaepernick said.
Fortunately for him, the 49ers defense bailed him out seven seconds later as linebacker Ahmad Brooks picked off Drew Brees and returned the interception for six points.
So. Let the debate continue. If Smith would not have been swift enough to score on the read-option as Kaepernick did, would Smith have been experienced and smart enough to also not throw the same interception Kaepernick did? Would the 49ers defense have bailed out Smith, as well?
It's all quite entertaining to discuss. We keep learning more about Kaepernick with every passing day. Donte Whitner, the 49ers safety who also scored on an interception return, has become friendly with Kaepernick because the two often find themselves working out simultaneously at the team's practice facility in Santa Clara. Whitner said that Kaepernick is often the first man to show up on the premises.
"He's a quiet guy who has lofty goals for himself," Whitner said.
Such as? It turns out that Harbaugh has adopted a motivational technique from his old college coach at Michigan, Bo Schembechler. The 49ers players are asked before each season to assemble a "goals package" folder, as a kind of mission statement. Kaepernick showed his "goals package" to Whitner. In the folder, Kaepernick had written down that he wanted to become an NFL starter, win the Super Bowl and make the Pro Bowl.
It is also instructive to hear what the Saints players said about Kaepernick. Drew Brees, their own Pro Bowl quarterback, observed that the 49ers have "got a great formula for winning" because there was "not much difference" between Kaepernick and Smith. Jon Vilma, the New Orleans rugged linebacker, was also complimentary of Kaepernick without going too far overboard.
"I thought he did a good job managing the game," Vilma said. "He didn't force any balls. He did exactly what they asked him to do."
Hmmmmm. If those words and sentences sound familiar, it is because a year ago, people were saying the same sorts of words and sentences about Smith.
The Saints probably have it right. The 49ers could win right now with either Smith or Kaepernick. But Harbaugh and his offensive coordinator, Greg Roman, want Kaepernick out there for the four or five plays a game in which he might make a difference with his extra tools -- the faster legs, the stronger gun. The coaches also know that with Smith's personality, he won't grumble or make a public scene about sitting down. And long term, Kaepernick is surely going to be the man.
It's an ideal situation. If Smith returns as a starter because Kaepernick is hurt or is struggling, the defensive-based 49ers likely would not miss a beat. Meanwhile, the shiny, new toy keeps bringing a gleam to the eye. If it all works out, December could be the most wonderful time of the year.