QB switch: Kaepernick in, Smith out vs. Bears

The 49ers got an unexpected blow to their game plan Monday morning for their NFC showdown against the Chicago Bears later in the evening when quarterback Alex Smith was declared out after being evaluated by a team doctor. Colin Kaepernick will make his first career start in place of Smith, leveling the playing field against the Bears, who also will be without their regular starting QB.

Smith suffered a concussion in the first half of last week's game against the St. Louis Rams, but the eighth-year veteran practiced all week with the 49ers and all indications were that he would start his 29th consecutive game against the Bears in a pivotal matchup of NFC West and NFC North division leaders.

But that streak will end tonight after the 49ers released a statement Monday morning via e-mail under a subject line that read "UPDATED 49ers Injury Status Report."

The one-sentence statement read: "49ers quarterback Alex Smith has been declared out for this evening's game after being evaluated by team medical director Dr. Dan Garza."

Garza is the team's concussion expert, and his decision turns the 49ers' (6-2-1) preparation upside down for their nationally-televised clash against the Bears (7-2), who will be without their regular quarterback, Jay Cutler, who also will miss the game due to a concussion.

Jason Campbell will start in Cutler's place, making this pivotal contest also a battle of backup quarterbacks.

The 49ers weren't expecting it to come to that for them after Smith appeared to be making progress toward returning from his concussion every day during the past week.

Wearing a non-contact black jersey, Smith took most of the practice snaps with the first-team offense throughout the week and appeared on course in every way to returning to the field against the Bears.

But NFL players need to be cleared by team physicians and an independent neurological consultant before they can return, according to NFL safety protocols that recently have added stricter guidelines. On Saturday, the last day the 49ers were available for media interviews, offensive coordinator Greg Roman said Smith "is still going through the protocol right now and that's in the doctor's hands. When we know, you will probably know."

But Roman also said Smith looked every bit ready to play, and offensive tackle Joe Staley – who went through the concussion protocol last month and was able to return to action a week after he was injured during an Oct. 14 loss to the New York Giants – said Smith "was normal as far as going through all his tests. He just has to go through the final steps."

The final step for Staley's return was a contact test, Staley said. Whatever Smith's final test consisted of, he did not pass it, and for the first time since 2010 the 49ers will play a game with Smith, the NFL's third-ranked quarterback with a passer rating of 104.1.

"He's looked good, really sharp," Roman said of Smith on Saturday. "He's gotten plenty of practice time. But there's a lot of different scenarios this week and it's fluid. We talk through them, and it will change according to how the big picture changes, and obviously the quarterback position is a huge piece of that."

The big picture changed in a huge way for the 49ers with Monday's ruling on Smith's status. The San Francisco offense takes on a different style and dimension when it's being run by Kaepernick, the second-year veteran who saw his most extensive action as a professional after Smith was hurt and left midway through the second quarter of San Francisco's 24-24 tie with the Rams on Nov. 11.

Kaepernick does not have the experience or accuracy of Smith as a passer and is much more comfortable taking snaps in shotgun formation rather than lining up behind center and dropping back on passing downs.

Entering the Rams game trailing 14-7, Kaepernick started slowly, completing only 2 of his first 7 passes as San Francisco punted on his first three series in the game.

But Kaepernick settled into a groove in the fourth quarter and led the 49ers to 17 points in that period, directing an 11-play, 81-yard scoring drive that Kaepernick capped with a seven-yard touchdown run around right end that brought San Francisco within 17-14 with 8:48 to play.

With the 49ers trailing 24-21 after a late St. Louis touchdown, the 49ers got the football back with 1:03 remaining in regulation at their own 22-yard line.

Kaepernick scrambled for 19 yards on first down, had a 10-yard scramble two plays later and completed his first three passes of the drive to take the 49ers to the St. Louis 15 with 15 seconds to play. David Akers kicked a 33-yard field goal to send the game into overtime, and the extra quarter went scoreless, leaving the NFL with its first tie in four seasons.

Kaepernick regrouped from his rocky start to finish 11 of 17 for 117 yards passing for a passer rating of 84.7. He also was San Francisco's second-leading rusher with 66 yards on eight carries.

"It did take me a while to get into the flow of the game," Kaepernick said afterward. "From there, I felt comfortable with everything that we were doing. I thought I did pretty well. Obviously, there is a lot of room for improvement and a lot of things I would like to do differently. I just went out there and tried to do what I could do to help this team."

Kaepernick will get an opportunity to do that from the start for the first time against the Bears, even though the game plan was being built around Smith during most of the week. Roman did say Kaepernick got a few more snaps than usual with the first-team offense during the week, but the Niners will no doubt make considerable adjustments to the game plan with Kaepernick starting against Chicago, which ranks fifth in the NFL in total defense and leads the NFL with 30 forced turnovers.

"I thought he did a very good job of coming into the game and moving the team (against St. Louis)," Roman said. "There's definitely some plays in there that he could have played better on, he knows it. There's some really good plays that he made, off the cuff, that you can't coach. He did a good job. I thought he was very poised, he was very prepared mentally, physically and emotionally."

The Niners will be looking for the same and more from Kaepernick tonight in the most consequential game of his career.

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