SAN FRANCISCO — As with grief and romance, a good quarterback controversy has at least five stages. They often emerge over many weeks and months — sometimes years, as in the case of Joe Montana and Steve Young here two decades ago.
Hope. Infatuation. Acceptance. Realization. Uncertainty.
The 49ers did something remarkably efficient and fan-friendly this past week. They squeezed the five stages into five days.
Coach Jim Harbaugh took a steady Super Bowl contender with a 7-2-1 record and considered, publicly and repeatedly, the implausible: whether the team would be better off with a quarterback who had one career start rather than the quarterback who had a 19-5-1 regular-season record as Harbaugh’s starter.
He dared to call it “the opposite of a controversy," which is like saying inflammable is the opposite of flammable.
Among the antonyms for “controversy" are peace and quiet. There was none of that as the 49ers prepared to play the Saints in New Orleans today. There was only a sense that something unusual was happening.
The 49ers always hoped that Colin Kaepernick could someday become their starting quarterback. Teams do not draft quarterbacks in the second round, as San Francisco did with Kaepernick in 2011, without such intentions.
But someday would have to wait because Harbaugh rescued Alex Smith’s career.
Smith was drafted first overall in 2005. His inconsistencies and inadequacies, attributed partly to playing for six offensive coordinators in his first six seasons, routinely sent him to the bench for the likes of Tim Rattay, J.T. O’Sullivan, Ken Dorsey and Troy Smith.
Under Harbaugh last season, though, Alex Smith quarterbacked the 49ers to an unexpected 13-3 record and a narrow loss in the conference championship game. Smith received little credit. He was considered the team’s weakest link. He was appreciated for his resilience but unloved for his inability to be Montana or Young, or even Jeff Garcia.
This season, Smith, 28, was having his best year. He led the NFL in completion percentage. He made few mistakes. His team was 6-2.
But a concussion knocked him out of a game two weeks ago. It kept him from starting last Monday night against the Chicago Bears.
Enter Kaepernick. He had 31 career pass attempts. He was intriguingly raw. Fans hoped the 49ers could escape with a low-scoring victory against one of the league’s better teams.
Then Kaepernick completed 12 of his first 14 passes. The 49ers scored on their first four possessions. They dismantled Chicago, 32-7.
Kaepernick threw with a zip and carried himself with a swagger that Smith never displayed. To fans accustomed to Smith’s drab efficiency, it was a revelation, like falling asleep in a black-and-white world and awakening to full color.
By halftime, the talk online was whether Kaepernick should be the full-time starter — an implausible suggestion 90 minutes earlier. After the game, tight end Vernon Davis giddily praised Kaepernick and compared him to Tom Brady.
Harbaugh was asked if Smith and Kaepernick were competing for the starting job. The answer might have been expected to be no, because of the 49ers’ record and the axiom that a player should not lose his job to injury.
“We’ve got two quarterbacks that have a hot hand," Harbaugh said. “And we’ll make the decision when we have to make it."
The Bay Area buzzed. Titillated fans swooned. If bandwagons were more than metaphors, Kaepernick’s would have collapsed under the weight.
People who could not pronounce his name a day earlier took to calling him “Kap." They figured out that his hometown, Turlock, is about two hours from San Francisco, in California’s Central Valley. They learned that Kaepernick was born in Wisconsin and that his father worked for a cheese company.
Early adopters rushed to buy his No. 7 jersey. They chatted on airwaves and Internet boards. They followed @Kaepernick7 on Twitter, where his profile reads, “Trying to be #1 in a world that accepts #2."
They volleyed esoteric facts about his Monday night performance. Did you know that he was the first quarterback since 1988 to win his first NFL start against a team with a .750 win percentage so late in the season?
For 10 minutes, in 10 different ways, reporters asked Harbaugh which quarterback he would start. He was more obtuse than a 179-degree angle.
“To me it’s the opposite of a controversy, where controversy is argument between opposing points of view," Harbaugh said. “This is a decision that’ll be made from a team aspect, coming from the same direction."
No coach may be as adept at muddy declarations. You have always said that Alex is “your guy," someone said.
“Alex, all these guys, are our guys," Harbaugh said.
He seemed surprised by all the commotion. What was the big deal?
Change is inevitable. It may as well occur when Kaepernick is confident. It may as well happen against the Saints and the NFL’s lowest-ranked defense. It may as well come with six regular-season games left. Besides, Smith would get another week to rest his concussed head. And no opponent would have a better backup.
Late Wednesday night, the news broke on Twitter: Sports Illustrated, citing an unnamed source, said Kaepernick would start, even if Smith was fully healthy.
Only a few quarterbacks have won more games than Smith since the start of last season, and they have names like Brady and Rodgers. Before he was hurt, Smith completed 25 of his last 27 passes for 204 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions. In his last game against the Saints, in January’s playoffs, Smith led the 49ers to two touchdowns in the final 2 minutes 11 seconds. He ran 28 yards for the first. He threw for the second with nine seconds left. San Francisco won, 36-32.
And you want to bench him? For someone who started one game? Even Young, who waited years to get Montana’s job, said it was a bad idea.
The offensive coordinator, Greg Roman, said no decision had been made. People had time to reflect on the possibilities over Thanksgiving dinner.
Kaepernick could flail in New Orleans, in front of some of the league’s loudest fans and against one of its hottest teams. What would that do to his confidence? To Smith’s? A promising season could be undone by tinkering with the most important position on a championship-caliber team.
“Who would have the arrogance and madman guts to bench a playoff-tested quarterback in his prime in the middle of a go-for-broke season?" the columnist Tim Kawakami asked in The San Jose Mercury News. “Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers, of course."
At his last news conference before today’s game, Harbaugh repeatedly declined to announce a starter. There was “no competitive advantage" for doing so, he said.
“You may have your opinions on it," Harbaugh said. “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."
There. The 49ers will do as they please, and no amount of gravitational pull from the fan base matters.
Harbaugh could have exercised an escape clause. Smith had not been cleared to play by Friday, although he practiced without contact all week. Harbaugh expected clearance Saturday. He never suggested the starting question came down to health.
So the 49ers were back to where they were Monday. Is this the start of the Kaepernick Era, punctuated by the 49ers’ return to the Super Bowl? Or is it a regrettable infatuation that greedily unravels a championship march?
Like grief and romance, a quarterback controversy probably has more than five stages.
Someday, perhaps: Anticipation.