Monday, December 17, 2012

Instant Classic

The 49ers were one win away from the Super Bowl last year, a highly-improbable outcome for a team that had gone 6-10 the year before, had a new head coach, and got a late start on everything due to the player lockout.

And this year, with hopes running high, the team switched quarterbacks in mid-season. That's not a typical move for an upward-trending team hoping to break through to elite status.

Well, we don't yet know how it will all turn out, but the win in Foxboro over the Patriots puts a huge stamp of approval on the 49ers' trendline. Colin Kaepernick wasn't flawless, but he was damned good. Playing on the same stage as one of the game's all-time greats, Kaepernick measured up favorably against Tom Brady.

John Madden likes to say that a team with a two-touchdown lead in the NFL is pretty safe--unless the other team has one of a very small handful of quarterbacks capable of putting up points in a hurry. Brady, Brees, Rodgers, Peyton's not a very long list.  And sure enough, even a four-touchdown lead wasn't safe in this one. Brady whipped the Patriots back from the dead, and the 49ers were on the spot.

This was your basic high-stakes test. If the 49ers had ended up losing this thing, the reasonable conclusion would have been: "Well, they're better, but they're not Patriots-level better." But the Niners didn't blink. LaMichael James' 62-yard kick return and Michael Crabtree's explosive move after a reception on the very next play put the 49ers back on top.

That still left plenty of time for Brady and Company to respond, but a fatigued 49ers defense managed to stiffen. Despite his 443 yards of passing, Tom Brady walked out of the cold, wet weather as a loser.

If the 49ers renaissance builds into a Super Bowl appearance, this game will be an important moment. It's one thing to beat the Dolphins at Candlestick. It's another to beat the limping Saints in New Orleans. But it's really something to beat Brady and the Patriots on their home turf.

Now that the deed is done, the 49ers have exactly zero time to savor the win. They need to win their final two games to guarantee the second seed in the NFC heading into the playoffs (meaning a first-round bye). But make no mistake: whether they're thinking about what they did in Foxboro or not, the Niners are a different team today. They went to the dragon's lair and came out alive. You don't forget things like that.

Monday, December 3, 2012

The Future Is Now

As Bill Clinton might say, Jim Harbaugh has some brass.

It's now clear that Alex Smith's concussion was merely the trigger mechanism for something Harbaugh planned to do eventually anyway: install Colin Kaepernick as the 49ers' starting quarterback. Any debate over whether it's the right move is in the rear-view mirror, because it's a done deal and there's no turning back.

Harbaugh's switcheroo, to be charitable, is hardly the safe path. The 49ers, under Harbaugh and Smith, had become one of the NFL's elite teams. It's pointless to engage in a debate over yards-per-completion or completion percentage or anything else. This team, under this coach and quarterback, have been winners.

But they're not the team Harbaugh envisions. It takes some, well, brass to take something that doesn't appear broken and toss it out the door. Time will tell if the Kaeper-Niners are a marked improvement over the Smith-led version.

The early returns are mixed. Kaepernick has shown moments of brilliance in his three starts since the Smith injury. He's also made some mistakes. He is, in short, a young quarterback learning the ropes. But make no mistake: all indications are that this is now his job, and Smith will probably be taking his snaps somewhere else next season.

Hall of Famer Steve Young nailed it the other day when he described the NFL as a "big boy" league. The word "fair" really doesn't matter; Smith serves at management's pleasure and Harbaugh's job is to do what he thinks it takes to win.  If the team doesn't win, Harbaugh will pay the price.

But there is one slightly troubling aspect to the way this all went down. I argued in an earlier post that it's wrong to take a player's job away due to injury, but I find relatively little support for my position. That's not what troubles me. This is: stripped bare, what happened here was that an NFL starter was shoved aside because he suffered a head injury.

The NFL is slowly and painfully coming to grips with the reality of head injuries and brain damage. It finally has a protocol for dealing with concussed players, and that protocol becomes the mechanism by which Harbaugh and the 49ers make their big move. No matter what you think about the relative merits of Kaepernick and Smith, you should be at least a little concerned about the message this sends.