I understand all the excitement around Colin Kaepernick. He’s very talented and appears to be “the real deal” as it were. And yet, up to this point he’s accomplished only as much as half the quarterbacks in the NFL have accomplished, including Alex Smith: he won a playoff game. Admittedly, he did it with a fair share of panache. It was an impressive performance. But was it really more impressive than Alex Smith’s performance one year previous, when he beat a New Orleans Saints team that was far superior and much hotter than the tired and floundering 2012 Packers?
New Orleans came into the 2011/2012 post-season after winning eight-straight games, often by two or more touchdowns. Brees had just broken Dan Marino’s 27-year-old single-season passing record with 5,476yds, and set a new mark for completion percentage, at 71.2. San Francisco didn’t win that game by stopping Drew Brees. He passed for 472 yards and 4 touchdowns. They won because Alex Smith outplayed him, accounting for 4 San Francisco touchdowns (3 passing and a 28-yard TD run) while throwing no interceptions. One of Smith’s touchdown passes came with only nine seconds on the clock, after driving the length of the field in just over 1:30.
Listen, I’m not saying what Kaepernick is doing is unimpressive. It’s very impressive. What I am saying is that what Kaepernick is doing wouldn’t have happened had it not been for what Alex Smith did for the seven years previous. Smith didn’t just put the team on his back and win that playoff game. He did it after battling through the hiring and firing of 7 different offensive coordinators and a series of sometimes embarrassingly under-qualified head coaches, all of whom constantly hung his job over his head when their ill-conceived offensive schemes fell flat. Add to that the sad reality that, until somewhat recently, the most reliable wide-out on the San Francisco roster had been Brandon Lloyd.
But Smith never said a word. He never complained. He kept his head up and fought through his circumstances. He just went to work. And after things came together in the front office and in the coaching booth and on their roster, the Niners started winning. And again, Alex Smith didn’t say a word. He just went to work. And it paid off, not just for Smith, but for the entire franchise.
This 49er team is more prepared to overcome the kinds of mistakes younger players like Kaepernick make. Like taking a costly safety against the Rams in week 10. Or throwing errant passes like the one that put them in a 0-7 hole in the 1st quarter of last week’s playoff game. Or even the 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalties Kaepernick took for spiking the ball in a defender’s face.** A few years ago this 49er team wasn’t mature enough to fight back from those kinds of miscues. They’ve toughened up and become more focused. I wonder how they learned to fight through their circumstances, keep their heads up and do their job? I can’t imagine it was from the kid who kisses his biceps when he scores. I think they learned it from the veteran workhorse whose shoulders Kaepernick is standing on. Kaepernick can do what he does in large part because the team around is very, very good. They got that way on Alex Smith’s watch.
San Francisco should handily beat the Falcons on Sunday and go to the Superbowl. They might even win the Super Bowl (though I’m not sure anybody can beat Baltimore… more on that later). And if that happens with Colin Kaepernick at the helm, it will be because Kaepernick can do things on the field that very few players can do. Nonetheless, I hope Alex Smith wears his Super Bowl ring with pride. Because he did the kind of work to build this 49er team that I’m not convinced Colin Kaepernick, with all his physical talent, could dream of doing.
**A stupid move on every level. Act like you’ve been there before