Last year, Alex Smith was one play away from the Super Bowl.
This year, he was one play away from the bench.
The smoke turned to fire on Wednesday evening, as SI’s Jim Trotter — who’s long had his finger on the pulse of the Bay Area — reported 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh informed Smith that Colin Kaepernick will start against the Saints on Sunday, and that the decision was “not based on health.”
Although Smith himself mildly refuted the story, it appears the Kaepernick era is officially underway in San Francisco.
We’ve already talked about the situation at length in this space, but the long and short of it? Harbaugh had little choice. If he hadn’t turned to his dynamic second-year quarterback, every Smith incompletion would have been occasion for grumbling and second guessing.
Kaepernick, both thanks to his legs and arm, does things Smith simply can’t do. Perhaps the starkest evidence? Per Pro Football Focus, Kaepernick attempted four passes that traveled at least 20 yards in the air on Monday. Smith had attempted just three over his past three games.
And though Smith is no stranger to making things happen with his running ability, he’s not on the same plane as Kaepernick as an athlete.
When it comes down to it, the 49ers have extremely little to lose. Undoubtedly, the hope is that Kaepernick takes the offense to the next level. But if he doesn’t? Say he goes 0-2 and looks overwhelmed in his next two starts? The 49ers will still be sitting at a solid 7-4-1 in the eminently winnable NFC West.
No harm, no foul. This is one genie that can be put back inside the bottle if Kaepernick struggles. If he succeeds, however, a team that’s already among the most deadly in the league on defense and special teams could find itself in another dimension of dominance. The 49ers will be unstoppable if their offense morphs from merely competent to dangerous.
When it comes down to it, Harbaugh made the only call he could really make, and fantasy owners might end up with a QB1 out of the whole ordeal. As the leader of our industry points out, Kaepernick’s running ability — like Tim Tebow before him — gives him a much higher floor than say, Nick Foles, who had nothing to fall back on Sunday when his passes weren’t connecting with his receivers.
It’s a new era in San Francisco, and a new day for fantasy owners who had lost hope at the quarterback position. They’ve been gifted a potential X factor with six weeks to go. Kaepernick needs to be 100 percent owned.
Thanks For The Memories
The 49ers weren’t the only team with a changing of the guard on Wednesday. Only in Jacksonville, it was the old guard being installed.
In a stunning admission of failure, both Blaine Gabbert and Laurent Robinson were placed on injured reserve. The move removes whatever temptation the Jags might have felt to reinstall Gabbert at quarterback if Chad Henne is less than crisp, and is a naked repudiation of Gene Smith’s GMing.
Both his signature draft gambit and biggest free agent signing were taken out of the equation in one fell swoop. It’s the surest sign yet Smith won’t be back in 2013, and a damning indictment of Gabbert’s Jacksonville future. As in, he doesn’t have one.
As Henne auditions for a 2013 starting job, Gabbert must plot a way to even earn a roster spot.
Bad News, Good News
The bad news? Danny Amendola (foot) missed Wednesday’s practice, and is in a walking boot.
The good news? He played through the injury for the second half of Sunday’s loss, and appeared no worse for the wear.
That, of course, is not evidence in and of itself that Amendola will be good to go for Week 12. After all, the adrenaline wore off 96 hours ago. But it is something owners can take heart in even if Amendola fails to get in a single practice rep this week.
His status should by no means be taken for granted, but there’s still a very real chance Amendola plays against the Cardinals, even if he’s a game-time decision. Of course, then there’s also a chance he’ll simply get hurt again. If there’s one thing Amendola has proven almost as adept at as catching passes, it’s picking up nicks and bruises.
Quarterback/Pass Catcher Quick Slants: Percy Harvin (ankle) pushed to practice, but was overruled by his coaches. Harvin didn’t even resume walking until Tuesday, and is facing an uphill battle to play in Week 12. … Aaron Hernandez is questionable for this evening’s game, but is fully expected to suit up for the first time since Week 7. … Julio Jones (ankle) missed Wednesday’s practice, but did participate in the walk-through portions. Even better, coach Mike Smith expects him to "participate more" this afternoon. … Greg Jennings (groin) got in his first practice of any kind since Week 4, but only “briefly participated.” It’s doubtful he’s cleared for Sunday. … Ryan Lindley will start for the Cardinals. Pray for the Cardinals. … Antonio Brown (ankle) has resumed practicing, but is unlikely to return Sunday.
Running Back Quick Slants: Although Fred Jackson (concussion) has been medically cleared and is practicing in full, C.J. Spiller will start against the Colts. It’s a gutsy — but correct — call from coach Chan Gailey, and news that solidifies Spiller as a high-end RB2. … Felix Jones (knees) is questionable for this afternoon’s game. If you have an alternative, go with it. … Darren Sproles (hand) is practicing in full. Barring a setback, he’ll resume passing-down duties against the 49ers, and serve as Drew Brees’ preferred safety valve. … Cedric Benson (foot, I.R. designated for return) hasn’t ruled out surgery. Translation: Cedric Benson will probably undergo surgery.
Fantasy Turkeys of the Year
2012 Inductee Into The Fantasy Turkey Hall of Fame: Felix Jones
Link to 2011 Turkeys
10. Jonathan Stewart — Listen Jonathan, we know you’ve been jerked around and never really allowed to get into a rhythm. Your offensive line isn’t good. But here’s some helpful advice: stop averaging 3.6 yards per carry.
9. Matthew Stafford — Just complete a pass, and try not to do so via a sidearm fadeaway. This isn’t NBA Jam.
8. Brandon Lloyd — Some were expecting the next Randy Moss. What they got instead was the next Michael Crabtree.
7. Chris Johnson — You really thought we’d forget Weeks 1-3? (Not to mention Week 5.)
6. Michael Turner — “Did someone say turkey?”
5. Romeo Crennel
4. Laurent Robinson — This is why NFL players are struggling to get $5 million guaranteed while Jeremy Guthrie’s making 200x more than the president.
3. Tight ends who aren’t Rob Gronkowski or Jimmy Graham — Hey guys, we REALLY APPRECIATE the five catches for 42 yards. You really know how to make our week.
2. Darren McFadden — We asked you to run, DMC. Instead, you walked leisurely.
1. Ryan Mathews — This is going to be the week, this is going to be the week, this is going to be the week, this is going to be the week.....*the tryptophan finally makes the pain go away*