Keep others guessing, but 49ers know who's QB

Who's telling who will start for the 49ers at quarterback against New Orleans? Certainly not Jim Harbaugh this week. Not even close. And that's the way it was all the way up to Sunday's kickoff at the Superdome, where Colin Kaepernick will continue as the team's starter or the Niners will go back to Alex Smith. To be sure, nobody around the 49ers was stepping forward to clear up the mystery.

Because that's the way they like it. And in particular, that's the way Harbaugh likes it.

But the subterfuge offered by Harbaugh and others this week overshadowed the essence of what was really happening: The 49ers are preparing to make a move at quarterback that could change the dynamics of the entire team.

Not ever very forthcoming about the specifics of personnel or scheme to begin with, Harbaugh was in his element fielding questions about his starting QB this week. And then tossing them aside with non-committal responses.

A couple of hours before the Niners jumped on their airplane bound for New Orleans two days ago, Harbaugh was pure Harbaugh during his final pre-game obligation to meet the media: Keeping everybody guessing while saying as little as possible about his budding and brewing quarterback situation – and make sure not to call it a "controversy," because Harbaugh already has assured everybody it's not.

Asked at the top of his news conference who San Francisco's starting quarterback will be against the Saints, Harbaugh gave an answer that no doubt already had been rehearsed in his mind.

"We feel like there's no competitive advantage for us to release that information, for our organization or our team," Harbaugh responded. "We just do not get into what the role's going to be, how we're going to use them, and the specifics of that. Again, with that information, we'll just not release."

Nobody was going to let Harbaugh get away with that, as an avalanche of quarterback-related questions followed one on top of the other. Finally, Harbaugh stated what already was obvious to anybody who has dealt with him regularly over the past two seasons.

"We could set our watch here for another 15 minutes if you want, and you could keep asking me questions and the answers will still be the same," Harbaugh said. "Again, it's just not something we think is an advantage for us to talk about. And you may have your opinions about it. It's unorthodox. So be it. You can call me names if you want, or make sport of me. But, that's the way we're going to go about it."

The only names anybody should be calling Harbaugh is "Mr. Shrewd" or "Master Manipulator." Because he's setting the agenda here, not anybody else, just as he practically always has done since becoming 49ers coach last year.

Harbaugh's tap dance of non-revelation helps skirt the real issue: Is the torch being passed to Kaepernick at quarterback for keeps? And should it be?

There are all kinds of valid arguments that can be made that Smith should keep the starting job after being medically cleared from the concussion he sustained Nov. 11 St. Louis.

He is, after all, the third-ranked quarterback in the NFL with a passer rating of 104.1. He does, after all, lead the league with a 70.0 completion percentage and is third in the league with an average gain of 7.98 yards per pass attempt.

And Smith hardly has been playing like a QB who should have a starting job swept out from under his feet. He was playing some of his best football before being injured, completing 25 of 27 passes for 304 yards and four touchdowns with no turnovers in his two previous games.

Smith had passer ratings of 157.1 and 143.8 in those two games, earning the first NFC Offensive Player of the Week award of his career after his Monday night performance against Arizona on Oct. 29.

Smith had started 28 consecutive games for the 49ers before he suffered a concussion during the team's 24-24 tie with St. Louis on Nov. 11. Smith practiced all of last week in a non-contact black jersey, but the team declared him out Monday morning for the Bears game later that evening after he was evaluated by team medical director Dr. Dan Garza.

That opened the door for Kaepernick, who had an auspicious starting debut in place of Smith, passing for 243 yards and two touchdowns with a quarterback rating of 133.1 to lead the 49ers to a 32-7 blowout victory over the Chicago Bears, who entered that game with the NFC's second-best record and fifth-ranked defense.

But it's not that Kaepernick did that in his first NFL start. It was HOW he did it, with a dazzling display of offensive firepower with the promise and potential of much more to come.

Smith practiced again in a black jersey throughout this week, and Harbaugh said Smith hasn't exhibited any concussion-like symptoms since Tuesday.

But the real issue no longer is if Smith's healthy. It's whether he's the best quarterback to lead the 49ers forward, to push them to the next level, which is the very highest level the NFL has to offer.

The answer should be obvious to anyone who saw the new dynamic dimensions Kaepernick brought to the offense against Chicago, and particularly to anyone who has seen him flash his talent and develop steadily on the practice field since the 49ers traded up to get him in the second round of the 2011 draft.

Those who like Smith and the status quo will point to his 20-6-1 record as San Francisco's starter over the past two seasons, his excellent passer rating and completion percentage, and the role he has played in the Niners' recent surge to NFL prominence.

But the operative word here is "role." Smith has shown flashes as a playmaker and clutch QB during the past two seasons, but he's never been far off the "game manager" label that many placed on him last season and don't feel inclined to peel off him despite his success this year.

Smith has thrived where before he failed in large part because of the coaches and offensive system and offensive talent the Niners now have assembled around him.

Perhaps by now, in his eighth season, Smith has advanced from average NFL quarterback to quality NFL quarterback. But he has an obvious ceiling, and he's succeeding largely because of the team around him.

In one 60-minute display of talent and poise and play-making ability against the Bears, Kaepernick already appears to have more to offer a team that needs just a little bit extra on offense to vault over the top.

Kaepernick can throw deep better than Smith, he can run better than Smith, he is bigger and stronger and faster and more elusive both in the pocket and open field.

All he ever needed was some polish and experience. The 49ers fed him small doses of that earlier this season, and Kaepernick was ready when the starting call finally came.

In an offense as innovative and diverse as the Harbaugh/Greg Roman collaboration, the possibilities with Kaepernick are truly unlimited.

Can you truly say that about Smith? The answer is no. What you've seen is what you get. The Niners remain limited to what they can do on offense with him behind center, despite what Smith has accomplished there during the Harbaugh era.

And to be sure, the 49ers' brain trust is a group of forward thinkers. As Roman said this week, "The beauty of having a quarterback like Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick is it's a great situation to be in. But what's happened up to this point is history."

Kaepernick still must learn to protect the football better – a Smith specialty – and particularly in clutch situations. But against the stern test of a Chicago defense that led the NFL with 30 takeaways entering the game, Kaepernick and the 49ers committed nary a turnover, and Kaepernick still has yet to throw an interception in his 54 career NFL passes. His career passer rating – obviously gleaned from a small sample so far – 105.8.

Harbaugh did his best to keep everybody guessing this week, but the more he did so – and the more he didn't display the no-doubt-about-it loyalty to Smith he's shown previously – the more it becomes obvious where Harbaugh's instinct has both him and the 49ers headed at quarterback.

It's Kaepernick, who will get his first road start in the tough confines of the Superdome. That's a place, by the way, where the Super Bowl will be played in early February.

The Niners' best chance to get there – and challenge regularly to get there in seasons to come – is with Kaepernick behind center. Fate and performance have put him there today, and now there is no turning back.

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