Commentary

Alex Smith deserves more

Harbaugh's refusal to commit isn't fair after the past 18 months

Updated: November 21, 2012, 8:01 PM ET
By LZ Granderson | ESPN.com

We already knew Jim Harbaugh was a former player in the NFL, but now we're discovering he is a current playa in the NFL. And the person he's cheating on is QB Alex Smith.

I'm going to give the San Francisco 49ers and their coach a pass for entering late into the Peyton Manning sweepstakes because, well, it was Peyton Manning. Once the Indianapolis Colts let him go, and doctors cleared the future Hall of Famer to play in March, any starting QB whose last name wasn't Brady, Brees, Rodgers or Roethlisberger should have been a little nervous.

[+] EnlargeColin Kaepernick
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesColin Kaepernick is listening. Will Jim Harbaugh call his name again?

But this flirting with Colin Kaepernick, after just one game, is just dirty.

"I usually tend to go with the guy that has the hot hand, and we have two quarterbacks that have a hot hand," Harbaugh said after Monday's 32-7 victory over Chicago (a game Smith sat out because of a concussion).

Such statements encourage players to downplay their head injuries for fear of losing their jobs -- which undermines the NFL's push for safety -- and in this case, Harbaugh's statement makes him look untrustworthy.

"We're all in lockstep as an organization that Alex Smith is our guy," Harbaugh said in the offseason after he not-so-quietly worked out with Peyton. "It's well-documented. You saw the way he played this year. Tremendous leader on our football team."

I'd say, considering they were a couple of plays from the Super Bowl. Smith threw only five interceptions all season (none in the playoffs) and finished in the top 10 in QB rating.

But that was last year. This season Smith is third in QB rating, behind Manning and Aaron Rodgers. In his last full game he was 18-of-19 with three TDs. Before he was knocked out of the game against St. Louis, he was 7-of-8 with a TD. Three of his five interceptions this season came in one game -- against the New York Giants, the defending Super Bowl champs.

Now, did Kaepernick the backup have a great game against the Bears? Hell yes: a 133.1 QB rating and a 32-7 win is a great game, regardless of the opponent.

But Chicago came into the game with a backup, Jason Campbell, as well. And he managed only 107 yards passing and was sacked six times for a loss of 49 yards. Kaepernick was working with great field position much of the night, including two drives that started on Chicago's side of the 50. And despite the Bears' 7-3 record, an argument can be made that they're overrated, considering only one of those wins came against a team that currently has a winning record (St. Louis, Detroit, Carolina and Jacksonville are currently last in their respective divisions).

In other words, Kaepernick's game could just be Matt Flynn throwing for 480 yards and six touchdowns against the Lions all over again.

It could be Tom Brady replacing Drew Bledsoe.

It could just be Harbaugh trying to keep his next opponent, the New Orleans Saints, guessing.

Who knows?

[+] EnlargeAlex Smith
Ralph Freso/Getty ImagesAlex Smith and Jim Harbaugh have been on the same page for two years. Why change now?

What we do know is that the 49ers traded three picks to move up to take Kaepernick in the second round of the 2011 draft, so they really like his arm strength and mobility. We also know the kid is pretty open about taking Smith's job, courtesy of one of his tweets back in October:

"Bout to get this workout in because yall ain't goin keep me on this sideline forever!"

But we also know it's pretty late in the season to stir a pot with a QB controversy unnecessarily.

And more importantly we know Smith is not just a "hot hand."

He's a rock-solid quarterback who is 20-6-1 in the games he's started for Harbaugh. Smith has earned a bit more commitment out of his coach while he's recovering from a head injury -- if not in private, then certainly in public. Not that Smith hasn't heard worse in his early seasons of disappointment with the 49ers after they drafted him No. 1 overall in 2005.

But it's moments like these that cause me to side with the players whenever they go on strike. The NFL is a business without guaranteed contracts, yet it is full of spotty flashes of loyalty. For the better part of two years, Smith has been one of the best quarterbacks in the league. He's not flashy … but he wins. Last season he had six fourth-quarter comebacks, including the playoffs.

And yet, his coach called him a "hot hand."

I wonder if Harbaugh would make a stronger commitment if Smith puts a Super Bowl ring on it.

LZ Granderson | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine