Alex Smith was having his best season as a pro and was leading the NFL in completion percentage. In fact, Smith had thrown a grand total of 10 INTs agasint 35 TDs in his last 27 games started (including postseason) for the 49ers. The one thing you could count on with Smith was that he was not going to lose the game for your team, and he had shown his most growth as a QB in 2012 before his concussion.
Once Kaepernick was installed, there was no doubt in my mind that head coach Jim Harbaugh was going to keep him in there, after all, he drafted Kaepernick for a reason and the man knows quarterbacks.
To see Kaepernick play against the Green Bay Packers was like watching Superman being born. That said, he undoubtedly hurt his team in the Super Bowl. Going into that fateful match-up against the Ravens I remember thinking, and stating aloud to my colleagues, that the safest bet to win the Super Bowl was to start Smith.
That wasn’t an admonishment of Kaepernick — who has no doubt earned his status as the league’s top jersey seller and the face of the 49ers moving forward — so much as it was an acknowledgment of Kaepernick’s inexperience. Simply put, I thought that Kaepernick would make at least three mistakes in the game that Smith never would. Mistakes that would cost his team the game, and unfortunately he did.
Before I delve into the specifics of the plays, let me first state that the 49ers did the right thing in allowing Smith to move on in the offseason and allowing Kaepernick to be the face of the franchise moving forward. I fully acknowledge that Kaepernick opens up the playbook in ways that Smith never could. That said, I felt then, and now, that Smith was the safer start in Super Bowl XLVII.
Football is largely about momentum, and if you’re a 49ers fan, you remember the first series of that game.
The 49ers came out on the first play and lined up out of formation and were penalized. On the game’s first pass play Kaepernick turned the wrong way on a fake to his running back and had fans hearts in their throats before throwing an inaccurate pass to the sideline for an incompletion.
Sensing his QB was rattled, offensive coordinator Greg Roman waived the white flag and ran a draw play on 3rd down. A decision Roman probably wouldn’t have made if he had the highly accurate and steady Smith in the game. Momentum was immediately on the side of the Ravens. They got the ball on the 50-yard line after the punt, and went right down the field for a touchdown.
On the ensuing 49ers drive, Kaepernick missed a wide-open Michael Crabtree in the end zone on a short throw, leading to a field goal. A play Smith has made 100 times.
Down 14-3, Kaepernick began to press and made another play his veteran predecessor wouldn’t have made, missing Randy Moss wildly by nine yards in throwing an easy pick to Ed Reed. Another momentum killing play that led to another Ravens touchdown.
Lastly, on the final drive of the game — after playing his team back into the game with some great throws — Kaepernick again pressed. After Frank Gore ran the 49ers inside the Ravens 10-yard line, Kaepernick single-handily stalled the offense.
Roman called three pass plays and Kaepernick never once looked away from Crabtree. On the final play of the game, the Ravens showed and came with a blitz leaving two receivers single covered and open, but instead he elected to throw a low percentage throw to Crabtree again, who was double covered. Game over.
What you want out of your quarterback in the Super Bowl is excellent decision making, to know what to expect from him and impeccable accuracy – all areas that Smith excelled at and areas that Kaepernick fell short in against the Ravens.
Determining whether or not the 49ers would be the reigning champs if Smith started obviously can’t be done definitively. However, it certainly is fun to debate given what we saw on the field.
Let’s just hope Kaepernick and the 49ers get another shot at that elusive Super Bowl ring in 2013.