Monday, November 26, 2012

Getting Wally Pipped

As the Great 49ers Quarterback Controversy of 2012 continues to boil, allow me a few observations:

  • The new girl in school always looks hotter
  • We've seen this sort of thing around here before. More than once, as a matter of fact (Montana/Young, Brodie/Spurrier, etc.)
  • This is a good "problem" to have
For those who've been spending their sports-fan time awaiting an NHL settlement, welcome back. While you were away, 49ers quarterback Alex Smith was concussed. Backup Colin Kaepernick played well in consecutive wins over the Bears and the Saints, and now the debate threatens domestic tranquility.

Smith or Kaepernick? For the last two weeks, there was no debate: it had to be Kaepernick, because Smith was injured (he did suit up for the Saints game but hadn't had any meaningful practice time). But now, Smith is back at work and the question is: should he be back in the lineup?

For me, the decision is simple. A starter doesn't lose his job due to injury. This assumes, of course, that said starter is back to 100%. He gets his job back until he loses it, and that, of course, can happen at any time. But those of us who subscribe to this view are firm in the belief that if a guy was good enough to be your starter when he got hurt, he's earned the right to return when he's healthy.

Plenty would disagree, and of course, the only decision that matters here is Jim Harbaugh's. You won't see me trying to predict what he'll do; that's a fool's errand. 

The "bench Smith" crowd is justifiably wowed by Kaepernick's performance as a stand-in. He's an arresting presence; as Harbaugh says, he has a "special ability". But before you anoint Kaepernick as The Franchise, it's probably worth taking a deep breath. He has all of two NFL starts under his belt. The Saints win was a big one, for sure, but it was a huge day for the defense. Take nothing away from Kaepernick, but we're still dealing with a limited data set here.

Smith, on the other hand, is 20-6-1 as a Harbaugh-era starter. He leads the NFL in passing percentage, and his 104.1 passer rating (please don't ask me to explain the passer rating) is in the company of Rodgers (105.6), Brady (105.0), Peyton Manning (104.8), and RG3 (104.6). It's ahead of such luminaries as Brees, Ryan, Eli Manning and Romo. In short, maybe he isn't the flavor of the month, but Alex Smith is most assuredly not chopped liver.

Those who mock the "you can't lose your job through injury" point of view are always quick to invoke the name of Wally Pipp. He's the poster child for their perspective.

Pipp had been the Yankees first baseman for 10 seasons when he called in sick that fateful day in 1925. Young Lou Gehrig got the start and the rest is history.

Except it's not really that simple, and it doesn't really help the "bench Smith" argument. Pipp had been a decent player, but he was slumping badly in 1925 (hitting a good 50 points below his career average). He was on his way to falling out of the starting lineup anyway; his headache just hastened the inevitable, and gave the sports lexicon the phrase "getting Wally Pipped".

Even if the analogy isn't perfect, Alex Smith appears to be on the way to joining the Wally Pipp Society. Just reading the tea leaves, it sure looks like Kaepernick will be running the show next Sunday in St. Louis against the Rams. The week after that,  the Niners host Miami, and the Sunday after that is a Sunday night showdown against the Patriots. If Kaepernick runs that table, Smith is this year's Pipp Society Man of the Year. 

Look, the 49ers have a happy problem. No other NFL team can honestly say it feels confident in a big game with either of two QB's. Unfortunately for Smith, there's really only room for one quarterback to run the offense during practice and so, despite his success, he looks like the odd man out for now. Unfair? Probably, but it's a cruel business and Alex Smith has already seen more than his share of it.

1 comment:

M.G. Lazich said...

Nice job, Stan, and I largely agree. So many ways to look at this. Yes, it's a good problem for the 49ers to face. Yes, take away the two Brees interceptions that were run back for TDs and we might be talking about how soon Smith can be ready to come back. And yes, the real world can be cruel, and Smith is likely feeling that, but he is also well compensated. But I think it creates an interesting situation that every NFL starting quarterback will be watching, because no other QB is likely to be quite as forthcoming about suffering from a concussion if it means he will be shoved to the sideline for an indefinite assignment on clipboard duty.