Contrary to what most football media will tell you, the San Francisco 49ers and head coach Jim Harbaugh don’t have a quarterback controversy. You know why Harbaugh isn’t worried about his QBs? Because San Francisco has a great defense, and a winning record, and two healthy quarterbacks.
Don’t get me wrong, many teams have many problems most of the time, but QB controversies are the only ones that make the news (or are they the controversies the news makes up?). Why don’t you hear about more issues at other positions? Because winning solves everything. A controversy would involve one QB at 85% health versus his backup at 100%. Both Smith and Kaepernick are at 100% and the 49ers are winning. That’s not a controversy, that’s a cornucopia of talent.
Injuries often play a big role in these problems. Bears fans don’t appreciate Jay Cutler until he misses a few games and the brutal reality called their O-line exposes itself on national television. Remember earlier this year when Cutler was criticized for yelling at J’Marcus Webb? Ironically enough Cutler bumped Webb harder than any of the Bears’ linemen pushed San Francisco two weeks ago, so maybe he was on to something. Cutler should receive a lot of credit and many apologies from his critics, but he won’t. The Bears are 8-2 with him behind center. The next media personality who criticizes Cutler’s “body language” or his “mood swings” should have their mouth stapled shut. Tom Jackson, this means you.
Jets head coach Rex Ryan prays for problems like the one Harbaugh with his two good QBs at full health, a nice winning streak, and a rock solid defense. Ryan has two below average QBs, injuries, a losing record, and a sketchy defense. He of course tells anyone within earshot that he believes in both his pivots, but that’s because he has no choice. The Jets don’t have a controversy; they have a full blown crisis. So do the Chiefs, with a very similar scenario and more losses. Both teams lose regardless of who plays.
I can tell you from experience there’s usually a controversy at several positions you don’t know about. This guard is big and paves ground on first down. His backup is smaller but has quicker feet and better pass protection ability. One receiver forgets patterns but is taller and runs faster than another who has better hands and actually remembers adjustments against the press. Neither of the cornerbacks can keep up in man coverage against the opponent’s top receiver this week, but the front seven doesn’t bring enough pressure to play an effective deep zone. Do you play Cover 0 and blitz like crazy, concealing the weakness and leaving everyone else in single-man coverage? Or do you play Cover 2 Press to slow the receiver’s release with safety help over top? Those are trick questions, because both scenarios are pointless if you can’t stop the run. Now that’s a controversy.
The only quarterback controversy I experienced in college ended before it began. In the midst of a winning season our offense hit a slump. Our coaches decided to shake up the huddle by announcing they would bench our starter, a rocket-armed pocket passer who never missed a snap. They promoted the backup — a scrambler type who also backed up at receiver — to the starting unit at the beginning of the week. Regardless of how the rest of the players felt about it, every man in the locker room knew that in order to win, we’d all have to continue doing our jobs. Most players didn’t agree with the decision, but all of us still had assignments to execute regardless of who was barking the signals.
So what happened? Two days before Saturday’s game the scrambler came down with mono, and the ex-starter resumed control. How’d he react? By throwing three first-quarter touchdowns and leading us to our best offensive game of the year. The backup QB remained a career backup and sometime-receiver. How’d our starter manage to focus? By doing his job and trusting his teammates to do theirs. That, and he went on to set almost every passing record in Simon Fraser University history. Injuries and illness play a funny role in either direction.
Harbaugh trusted his gut and went with Kaepernick, who rewarded him with a victory against the Saints. The last time these two teams played was in the NFC title game last year when Alex Smith engaged Drew Brees in a fourth-quarter shootout, winning the game with a last-second laser to Vernon Davis for a touchdown. Guess what? Davis didn’t have a single catch against the Saints this time, and he played all game long. The team won, and Davis kept his mouth shut, but if you think he didn’t talk to Harbaugh about it on Monday…
Last year Harbaugh had a Kyle-Williams-fumbled-twice-and-the-refs-blew-a-crucial-call-in-the-NFC-playoffs problem. This past week against the Saints, Williams tore his ACL, and he’s done for year. Problem solved, right? Well, Ted Ginn Jr. returns punts for the 49ers now and he fumbled one on his own 11-yard line, leading directly to a Saints touchdown. New season, different player, same problem. Of course, if the defense wasn’t built of granite and had choked against the Saints, Kaepernick would go back to the bench and Ginn Jr. would be called Ted Gilliams Jr.
Harbaugh has ninety-nine problems but these two quarterbacks ain’t one. Instead, they’re a reason for celebration. So is the defense, as long as it stays healthy. Hey, you think Davis wants to return punts? Naaah, that would be too easy. Kind of like having Smith and Kaepernick at his disposal.
If only the rest of the league were so unlucky.
Luke Purm is a freelance writer and former college football player (a wide receiver at Simon Fraser University) with an inside look at the sights and sounds from the huddle, down the field, through the air, in the endzone, under the pile, out of the locker room, on the scoreboard, and everywhere else football sweats, smells, yells, breathes and collides with life. Follow him on Twitter.