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.

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