Smith's strong start keeps SF off QB carousel

With Alex Smith off to the best start of his career and the 49ers sitting pretty atop the NFC West at 3-1, San Francisco has thus far avoided any kind of quarterback controversy or need for change at the position with young heir apparent Colin Kaepernick waiting in the wings. But that's not the case in several other NFL locales, where changes are being considered – or already have taken place.


With the calendar having flipped over to October last weekend, and only two fewer franchises in the league with losing records (11) than winning marks at the season's quarter pole, the keyboard operator can now begin to warm up the calliope.

That noise in the background isn't so much a carnival organ as it is a vocal chorus, but it probably doesn't matter, since the circus is about to begin. Or maybe more accurately, the midway has already opened for business, with one Hall of Fame member (Fran Tarkenton) and one self-promoter who probably thinks he ought to be enshrined in Canton (Joe Theismann) suggesting this week that, only four winless games into the campaign, it is time for a quarterback change in Minnesota.

In Dallas, another Hall of Famer, Deion Sanders, dissed Tony Romo.

Tim Tebow supporters in Denver have erected billboards, angling for the Broncos' brass to bench Kyle Orton and replace him with the former Heisman Trophy winner.

Even before Chad Henne sustained a shoulder injury that could end his season, the critics in Miami were calling for the hook.

There have been some rumblings in Seattle that coach Pete Carroll should try backup Charlie Whitehurst, who won the 2010 season finale that catapulted the Seahawks into the playoffs, over Tarvaris Jackson.

In several league precincts, it seems, starting quarterbacks aren't just under siege from voracious pass rushers.

But it takes more than catcalls for a coach to switch starting quarterbacks, even if the number of changes not related to injuries has increased the past three years.

By nature, the change at the game's most conspicuous position is anything but trivial, most head coaches acknowledge. And it takes more deliberation and introspection to change quarterbacks than to enact depth chart moves at other positions.

"You want to do what's best for the team, always, but you really have to think it out and go over all the (ramifications)," allowed Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio, who swapped out starter Luke McCown for rookie first-round draft choice Blaine Gabbert only two games into this season. "It isn't easy."

As noted, the league has witnessed an increase the last few seasons in quarterback changes promulgated for reasons other than just attrition.

Coaches under pressure to win quickly, and the duress of having owners closely scrutinize their investments in the sideline bosses, have been quicker to go to the bullpen.

There were nine quarterback changes in 2010 that were not injury-related. Over the past three seasons, there were 22.

That certainly seems to represent a change in the traditional approach toward the quarterback position, and it probably augurs that, beyond Del Rio's decision to turn to Gabbert, there figure to be more such changes in store for 2011.

Certainly, injuries will add to the body count, as they always do. But there will be a few teams, too, that conclude the future has waited long enough, and reach for new starting quarterbacks.

Many thought that would happen sooner rather than later in San Francisco. But the resurgent play of Smith not only has the 49ers establishing themselves as the early favorite in the NFC West, it also has prevented the expected calls for Kaepernick to remain silent.

And that's probably a good thing for the Niners in any case, since the talented second-round draft pick looked both raw and unready for prime time action during the exhibition season, even though the rookie says now that he'll be ready when and if called upon.

With Smith playing so well and the team winning, there has been no reason for coach Jim Harbaugh and his staff to address any soul-searching decisions. But that's not necessarily the case elsewhere.

"You always worry about the dynamics but, probably more important, the message that it sends to your team," allowed one coach who made a quarterback change last season that was not tied to an injury. "In your mind, you're making a switch because, in theory, it's going to improve the performance at the position. But in the minds of some players, I'm sure, it's seen as running up the white flag. You've really got to be careful with it."

The timeline for the change in Jacksonville is a somewhat incongruous one. The consensus is that Del Rio has to win this season to retain his job for 2012, and conventional wisdom was that he would favor the veteran McCown, seemingly his best chance for a solid season. To his credit, Del Rio made the switch, even if it might mean that the embattled coach is grooming Gabbert for his eventual successor.

Other coaches might not be so hasty to implement a change, but the recent history suggests that a few more are coming.

So far, in the first four weeks of the season, only two teams have had more than one starting quarterback. One of the changes, with Curtis Painter replacing Kerry Collins in Indianapolis last week, was because of injury.

But as the season proceeds, and a few more teams drop out of contention, the number of switches that are based on performance and not injury, will increase.

As the season moves forward, that tune is only going to get louder. And the 49ers, who have had to deal with so much negative noise at the position over the past half-decade, finally are one of the teams that don't have to hear it.


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