49ers' success hinges on Justin Smith, not Kaepernick

49ers' success hinges on Justin Smith, not Kaepernick
December 24, 2012, 10:45 am
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If Justin Smith can’t play, the 49ers won’t likely be doing so much longer, either. (AP)

So it turns out that Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers are . . . well . . . Just like everybody else. Capable of getting their bravado kicked in just like common Titans and Bills and Jaguars.

Theirs, though, is an odd form of hubris in that it goes into regular cycles of hibernation. They lose every third game, whether they need it or not, and they apparently do so in part by continually believing that they have finally climbed the final mountain despite being nowhere near it. 

They are unlike most teams in that they are not, have not been, and will not be for the foreseeable future, a quarterback-driven team. This sets them apart from Atlanta (Matt Ryan), Green Bay (Aaron Rodgers), Washington (Robert Griffin Le Trois), Seattle (Russell Wilson), Dallas (Tony Romo), New York (Eli Manning), Chicago (Jay Cutler), New England (Tom Brady), Baltimore (Joe Flacco), Denver (Peyton Manning), Indianapolis (Andrew Luck) and Cincinnati (Andy Dalton), to name most of the team still eligible for the postseason. Only Minnesota (Adrian Peterson) and Houston (Arian Foster, if he’s still healthy) can say their offenses are run by a non-quarterback.

And only the 49ers can say their most valuable player is a defensive tackle. Justin Smith showed again the difference between the 49er defense and the 49er defense. With him, they have allowed 189 points in 14 ¾  games, an average of 12.9 per game; without him, 71 in five quarters, an average of 56.8.

The truth should lie closer to Figure A than Figure B, of course, but that’s the beauty of a small sample size. You can make it say some oversized truths.

And this is the 49ers’ truth. Colin Kaepernick is a rookie in thought, word and deed, and dressing him his 50-yard runs and calling it quarterbacking is not the same thing. He will have difficult times because that is the way of all rookies not named Manning and Marino. There is much growing to be done, and he has been given the difficult task of doing his where everyone can see and staple expectations.

Thus, the fixation on him viz. Alex Smith viz. Harbaugh continues to completely miss the central point of this team. It wins when it stops people, because it is a team built upon defense and ball control, an out-of-time mode given the football of the day. If they cannot hold the football and Smith is not there to be the gravitational center of the defense, they are ordinary.

Thus, their difficulties in the final quarter of the New England game and their complete flameout in Seattle. Harbaugh’s great quarterbacking gamble has netted the 49ers exactly one lost place in the NFC playoff standings, and yet it isn’t the gamble that put them there, but Smith’s mangled arm.

Kaepernick is likely to get healthy against a rancid Arizona team, and then (assuming the Packers beat Minnesota and the Bears beat Detroit) there will likely be a first-round rematch with Chicago, only this time without Jason Campbell. Unless, of course the Seahawks lose at home to the Rams, which seems unlikely, in which case . . .


There are other permutations, of course, but let’s keep it relatively simple. The real point here anyway is that Colin Kaepernick is not the key to the 49ers, and neither, frankly, is Jim Harbaugh. It was, is, and will continue to be Justin Smith, and he can’t play, the 49ers won’t likely be doing so much longer either.

Ray Ratto is a columnist for CSNBayArea.com