Maiocco: Third exhibition critical for 49ers QBs

August 26, 2011, 4:48 pm
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Rookie quarterback Colin Kaepernick will play with the 49ers' first-team offense against the Houston Texans' first-team defense Saturday night at Candlestick Park.
Coach Jim Harbaugh is going against conventional NFL wisdom that the third exhibition game is the time to get your starters ready for the regular season, which begins 15 days later.
Instead, Harbaugh is using the opportunity to learn more about his backups in a situation that is more like the regular season than anything else this time of year.Typically, when a backup quarterback plays in the exhibition season it's almost impossible to know what it all means. The backup is usually playing with other backups and against non-starting defensive players. Sometimes it's more akin to a college all-star game than actual NFL competition.This third exhibition game, however, should provide Harbaugh and his staff with a good gauge of where Kaepernick stands in his readiness to lead an NFL offense into a regular-season game.

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Harbaugh has not announced whom will start for the 49ers in the regular-season opener Sept. 11 against the Seattle Seahawks. We can all assume the quarterback will be Alex Smith, based on Harbaugh's comments last week that Smith has gained "separation" in the competition with Kaepernick.And, indeed, Harbaugh said Smith will start Saturday against the Texans. But Harbaugh is also clearly planning for the possibility the 49ers will need to replace Smith at some point in the regular season.Eighteen teams in the NFL last season had their backup quarterbacks play the equivalent of at least two games. So, yes, the odds are against Smith playing the entire season.Harbaugh has heaped effusive praise onto both Smith and Kaepernick during training camp. But we don't know if Harbaugh really believes he has a capable starting quarterback to open the season.RELATED: Maiocco -- 49ers' 53-man roster projection
Smith certainly needs more work in the West Coast system. But rather than playing the first half and opening the third quarter with the starters, Smith will share his prep time with the rookie.Kaepernick is listed as the No. 2, but he can go up or down based on this performance. If Kaepernick demonstrates his readiness, Harbaugh will have Smith on a shorter leash in the first half of the season.The 49ers signed veteran Josh McCown as a third quarterback -- an insurance policy. If Harbaugh determines Kaepernick simply is not ready, perhaps McCown would be the first quarterback called upon if a backup is needed in the regular season.Typically, the third exhibition game is considered the most important because it's the closest thing resembling a regular-season game.For the 49ers, it's the most important game because it might shape how Harbaugh handles his quarterbacks in the regular season.

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