Kaepernick inherits expectation of Super Bowl


Quarterback Alex Smith's day of redemption came 10 months ago against the New Orleans Saints.

On Sunday when the 49ers and Saints meet again, Smith will be watching from the sideline. In what could easily rate as the biggest disappointment of his up-and-mostly-down NFL career, Smith has been benched.

The short- and long-term future of the franchise has been entrusted to Colin Kaepernick, the first quarterback that Jim Harbaugh added to the 49ers after taking over as head coach in 2011.

Harbaugh was prepared to make the bold move after Kaepernick led an offensive charge that resulted in scoring drives on the 49ers' first four possessions Monday night in a 32-7 rout of the Chicago Bears.

Harbaugh was in no hurry to make a public decision on the 49ers' quarterback situation when he met with the media on Wednesday. He suggested he wanted to keep the Saints guessing.

Still, Harbaugh raved about Kaepernick's first NFL start.

"It was A-plus, plus," Harbaugh said. "He did a great job. Decision making. Everything he did was in the high 90s, A-plus, in terms of how he executed and operated."

And what kind of feedback did Harbaugh receive from the other offensive players?

"I think everyone was excited about it," Harbaugh said.

Kaepernick became the first quarterback the 49ers would acquire under Harbaugh, but this is not about emotional attachment. At least publicly, Harbaugh was Smith's biggest supporter. Harbaugh also signed and later cut Josh Johnson, who played for Harbaugh at the University of San Diego.

If there's one thing we know about Harbaugh, it's that he wants to win football games above everything else. He said not even the birth of his son could have keep him away from the 49ers' season opener against the Green Bay Packers.

This decision was made because Harbaugh believes Kaepernick is better than Smith. And it's a move that Harbaugh certainly envisioned making at some point in the future when a draft-day trade was orchestrated with the Denver Broncos to select Kaepernick.

The 49ers moved up nine spots in the second round of the 2011 draft to select Kaepernick with the No. 36 overall pick. The 49ers traded their second-, fourth-, and fifth-round selections to acquire Kaepernick.

But it looked as if Smith's play would keep Kaepernick on the sideline for the foreseeable future.

Smith's shining moment came in the playoffs after the 49ers won the NFC West with a 13-3 record.

The 49ers scored two lead-changing touchdowns in the final 2:11 to defeat the Saints, 36-32, in an NFC playoff game. Smith ran 28 yards for one touchdown. After the Saints scored quickly, Smith engineered a seven-play, 85-yard drive and tossed the winning 14-yard touchdown pass to Vernon Davis with :09 remaining.

But if Smith thought he had finally arrived and found a home with the 49ers, he received a rude awakening in the offseason as a free agent.

The 49ers made a run at free-agent quarterback Peyton Manning in the offseason. Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman traveled cross-country to watch Manning work out. But Manning called Harbaugh to inform him of his decision to sign with the Denver Broncos.

Shortly thereafter, Smith settled for a three-year, 24 million contract. At the time, Smith was tied for the 18th-highest-paid quarterback in the league. The contract contained no signing bonus, and the 49ers had an easy escape if they decided to cut Smith after one season. Smith is guaranteed just 1 million of next year's scheduled 8.5 million pay.

Smith looked to be well on his way to earning his second year of the contract with a solid start. He is third in the NFL with a career-best 104.1 passer rating. He is completing passes at a league-best 70.0 percent clip. He was named NFC Offensive Player of the Week for his performance against the Arizona Cardinals. In the 49ers' next game, he sustained a concussion that knocked him from the lineup.

That opened the door for Kaepernick. And it opened the door for Harbaugh to make the change.

In making the quarterback switch, Harbaugh is gambling that the 49ers' best chance of winning the Super Bowl is with Kaepernick at quarterback.

After all, the 49ers made it to the NFC championship game with Smith. So the level of expectations has been set for Kaepernick.

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