SANTA CLARA, Calif. - What did you expect Colin Kaepernick to say?
If your answer was: "I think he’ll be back," when asked about head coach Jim Harbaugh in 2015, pat yourself on the back. You deserve it.
It came as no surprise that Kaepernick told members of Seattle's media in a conference call this week he believes Harbaugh will return next season, despite numerous national reports speculating otherwise.
And while this isn't a shocking revelation, it underscores the most important - and least-discussed - issue when it comes to Harbaugh's uncertain future with the team. If, in fact, Harbaugh's future in San Francisco is as questionable as national reports indicate.
What about the quarterback?
Yes, the quarterback that just signed a lucrative, albeit year-to-year contract who figures to be wearing No. 7 in red for seasons to come. How would he react to a coaching change? And who better than Harbaugh, a fabled quarterback guru, to continue to develop this uber-talented, often frustrating signal caller?
It might behoove 49ers brass to listen to their quarterback.
Harbaugh's work in the NFL is unprecedented. No coach in league history reached the conference title game in their first three seasons, which led to Kaepernick's reasoning behind his endorsement of Harbaugh, 2015.
"His resume," he told Seahawks media.
Thursday's game at Levi's Stadium against Seattle could go a long way toward deciding Harbaugh's fate with San Francisco. If the 49ers lose, they would put themselves behind the eight ball in an otherwise packed NFC playoff race. Their best shot would include winning all their remaining games, including Dec. 14's trip to Seattle, to finish 11-5. Kaepernick has never won at CenturyLink Field.
That's a lot of pressure. Harbaugh likes pressure. His team thrives on it. But two conference title game loses and an agonizing Super Bowl defeat say there isn't a 100-percent success rate when it comes to pressure-packed situations for his 49ers.
Few teams should understand the importance of continuity like San Francisco. Alex Smith's career arc is the obvious example of instability, having floundered under three coaches and five different coordinators since Norv Turner left after Smith's promising sophomore season.
It wasn't until Harbaugh signed on that Smith suddenly became one of the league's most efficient quarterbacks and played his way into the conference title game in the former Stanford coach's first season.
Smith was off to another impressive start in 2012 under Harbaugh, before his concussion sustained midway through the year gave Harbaugh an excuse to field his strong-armed, second-year quarterback from Nevada. Without even a full-regular season under his belt, Harbaugh coached Kaepernick to a berth in the Super Bowl.
That quarterback is defiant. Kaepernick's blatant distrust of the media and his "haters" is no secret. Believing that he would transition seamlessly under a new head coach, one that didn't turn him into a near Super Bowl champion in his first year as a starter, is awfully dangerous. Particularly if the expectation from ownership on down is championship contention every season.
San Francisco's roster is deep. But the championship window won't stay open forever. Key veterans Justin Smith, Frank Gore, Anquan Boldin - and perhaps Vernon Davis, based on his recent play - are not ripe for starting from scratch with a new regime.
Harbaugh is one of the few coaches in league history to suddenly open the championship window in his first season. A new coach keeping that window open is a difficult task, even if they hire internally with a familiar voice, like defensive coordinator Vic Fangio or defensive line coach Jim Tomsula.
If those defensive-minded coaches are the best options going forward, then the question lingers: what about Kaepernick?
Does Kaepernick continue to improve with Harbaugh coaching elsewhere? Like Smith before him, does Kaepernick flounder under the instability of a new offense? Is the remedy to that instability keeping the ever-scrutinized coordinator Greg Roman around?
Getting production from a quarterback is as much about a stable situation as the quarterback itself. The NFL is flush with examples of talented quarterbacks failing to live up to expectations due to the environment they're brought into.
The 49ers don't have to look far. Their most recent opponent Robert Griffin III, the second-overall pick in 2012's draft, has been benched this week. Even their own backup, Blaine Gabbert, picked 26 slots ahead of Kaepernick in 2011, has had a massively disappointing career after being fed to the wolves in a terrible offensive situation in Jacksonville.
For all these reasons, San Francisco must find a way to win Thursday against their heated rivals to get back to playoffs for the fourth straight year.
That is, if the future of the head coach depends on it.