If any questions remained about Alex Smith’s future in San Francisco, Colin Kaepernick’s performance in the 49ers’ NFC divisional playoff win over Green Bay made it clear that Smith’s tenure will end after this season.
The question remains whether Kaepernick can take the 49ers beyond where Smith got them last season.
As impressive as Kaepernick was in Saturday’s 45-31 victory, accounting for 446 total yards, he’ll have to deliver again Sunday in Atlanta to carry the 49ers to the first Super Bowl appearance since the Steve Young era.
Smith played almost as well at this stage of last January’s playoffs, as the former University of Utah quarterback passed for 299 yards and ran for a 28-yard touchdown in a win over New Orleans. But he couldn’t quite deliver an NFC championship, with the 49ers losing to the New York Giants in overtime.
It would be fair to say that Kaepernick has justified coach Jim Harbaugh’s decision to make him the permanent starter, following Smith’s concussion in November. The 49ers certainly won’t keep Smith beyond April 1, when they would owe him a $1 million roster bonus — and his 2013 salary of $7.5 million. It will be very interesting to see if Smith, who’s still only 28, can get another starting opportunity in the NFL.
For now, the issue is whether Kaepernick can get to the 49ers to the Super Bowl. The NFC championship game would have become even more intriguing if Seattle had held its last-minute lead at Atlanta, creating a matchup of quarterbacks Russell Wilson and Kaepernick.
As it is, the Falcons will deal with another young, multidimensional QB after giving up 385 passing yards and 60 rushing yards to Wilson. The 49ers called more designed running plays for Kaepernick, who gained 181 yards on the ground, and Atlanta may be better prepared for him than Green Bay’s defense was.
The bottom line is that Kaepernick, a second-year player from Nevada, has radically changed the look of the 49ers’ offense. Smith would not have thrown the early interception that Green Bay’s Sam Shields returned for a first-quarter touchdown, but he also would not have directed an offense that totaled 579 yards against the Packers.