NEW ORLEANS -- The quarterback who made his second career start was not the one who threw two interceptions that were returned for touchdowns on Sunday at the Superdome.Colin Kaepernick produced another efficient outing, running for a touchdown and throwing for another score, in the 49ers' 31-21 victory over the New Orleans Saints."You'd never know these were his first two starts," 49ers left tackle Joe Staley said of Kaepernick.Kaepernick had plenty of help, most spectacularly from a defense that produced interception returns for touchdowns by Ahmad Brooks and Donte Whitner against record-setting quarterback Drew Brees.
Kaepernick completed 16 of 25 passes for 231 yards with one touchdown and one interception. He also gained 27 yards, including a 7-yard touchdown run, on six rushing attempts.And if you think that clears up the quarterback situation, think again. At least, that's the way coach Jim Harbaugh appears to be orchestrating things.Kaepernick said he did not find out until 10 p.m. Saturday during a team meeting that he would get the start against the Saints. Alex Smith, who was cleared to play on Sunday, said he has not been told if he'll regain his starting job.
"I got cleared yesterday," Smith said. "For me, that was the ultimate goal, to get back healthy, No. 1. But ultimately, they went with Kap today."Harbaugh claimed the only reason Smith did not start Sunday was because his concussion symptoms remained and he did not want to rush him back into action. He said Smith would have started if it weren't for the injury he sustained Nov. 11 against the St. Louis Rams."He eventually got cleared," Harbaugh said. "The thought was to rotate him back into the action, but not all the way to the front line. Give him a chance to get cleared up."As for the future, Harbaugh said, "We'll look at the game and make the best decision going forward."Harbaugh admitted on Friday that he hoped to gain even a slight competitive advantage with his decision to remain mum on the identity of the 49ers' starting quarterback.When asked if he expects to start against the Rams, Smith answered, "We'll see. I don't expect anything."Kaepernick made one glaring mistake in the game. After picking a low snap off the ground, Kaepernick threw an interception when he tried to go down the field. The coverage should have dictated a throw to an underneath receiver, Harbaugh said.
But Kaepernick's error was not costly because Brees made an even greater mistake. Brooks dropped into coverage and intercepted Brees' pass and returned it 50 yards for a touchdown with :22 remaining in the first half to pull the 49ers even at 14-14.MAIOCCO: 49ers' defense gets the best of Brees
Kaepernick gave the 49ers a lead they would never relinquish to open the second half. He hit tight end Delanie Walker on a 45-yard pass on a third-and-2 situation. After Hunter ripped off a 21-yard run, Kaepernick found Frank Gore for a 6-yard touchdown.Kaepernick's play has not been a surprise to Whitner, who provided a huge play in Sunday's victory with a 42-yard interception return for a touchdown less than a minute later.
At the beginning of the season, Harbaugh asked each of the players to write down personal goals. Whitner said he and Kaepernick shared their goals with each other."And one of his goals was to be a starting quarterback in the National Football League," Whitner said. "He wants to be a starting quarterback. He wants to win a Super Bowl. He wants to go to Pro Bowls. He wants to be one of the top guys in the National Football League. With his hard work and his skills, I think he can get there."Said tight end Vernon Davis, "When I see him play, I see a playmaker. He has so much ability and he's always helping his team out. It's a difficult situation he's in, but he's doing great. I still think Alex is the man. But it's the coaches' call, and I'm sure Coach Harbaugh will make the right decision."The situation is very odd, as Smith finds himself in limbo and the team is rallying around Kaepernick. After all, Smith was named NFC Offensive Player of the Week in the start before he sustained the concussion."It is a little weird just because me and Alex are BFFs (best friends forever), so for myself it's a little weird," Staley said. "It's football business. We all have to go out there and play our position, play well and play to win. Whatever they do is coach's decision. Whatever they do, we're down with."Kaepernick made just enough plays on Sunday, as the 49ers converted 6 of 13 third-down opportunities. Kaepernick gave the 49ers a 7-0 lead when he faked an inside handoff to Kendall Hunter and kept the ball on a read option for a 7-yard touchdown."He has a real knack for it," Harbaugh said. "He has special ability, honed it in college and has taken it to the pro level. He can cover ground real fast, and he has an eye for making the read. He came with that ability. I take no credit for that one."The 49ers had some difficulties with the crowd noise, as the offense was twice called for delay-of-game penalties."It was a little shaky at first," Staley said. "Not just him (Kaepernick), it was everybody. The tempo was slow. But he did a good job of being loud and communicate."Said right guard Alex Boone, "There were a few things we need to clean up, but to give up no sacks against a good defense, that's something you can be proud of."