TEMPE, Ariz. — The Arizona media’s twice-annual conference calls with 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh are typically anything but productive. Harbaugh’s answers are either too short, too bland or too bizarre to cull much substance.
But when Wednesday’s call turned to Harbaugh’s decision to bench quarterback Alex Smith in favor of Colin Kaepernick, you could almost feel the Michigan man’s icy breath wafting through the phone’s speaker.
“The reason was we did what we feel would be best for us to win the next game,” Harbaugh said before falling silent.
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When asked if he’s comfortable with the level of scrutiny he will endure as a result of that switch, Harbaugh added: “Yeah, that’s the nature of the business. There’s not a lot of places to go to make that decision, so you have to make that as a head coach.”
Harbaugh won’t find anywhere to hide if this experiment backfires on him. It’s probably safe to say that if the 49ers fall short of the Super Bowl this season — they lost in the NFC Championship game last year — he will be skewered for the switch.
Alex Smith was 6-2 as the 49ers starter when he went down with a concussion in the first half of the club’s surprising 24-24 tie with St. Louis. In his previous outing, against the same Arizona Cardinals who will provide the opposition in Sunday’s regular-season finale, Smith would have set the NFL record for single-game completion percentage had he attempted and completed one more pass to reach the qualifying standard. As it was, he settled for an 18-of-19 performance (94.7 percent) for 232 yards and three TDs in a 24-3 win at University of Phoenix Stadium.
Yet, somehow, he lost his job the following week and has not gained it back.
“I feel like the only thing I did to lose my job was get a concussion,’’ Smith said three weeks ago. “You kind of state your case with your play, and I felt like I’ve done that.
“It stings the most just because I really felt there was something special going on here, and you sacrifice and invest so much time. I felt like I was playing good football. I have no idea what’s going to happen from here.”
Smith’s numbers were remarkable in his half season as the starter. He completed 152-of-217 passes (70 percent) for 1,731 yards with 13 TDs and five INTs for a passer rating of 104.1, which still ranks tied for second in the NFL behind Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers’ 106.2.
Kaepernick’s numbers have been good, too — just not as good. He’s 4-2 as a starter, and played the second half of that tie with the Rams. He’s completed 120-of-190 passes (63.2 percent) for 1,538 yards with eight TDs, three interceptions and a passer rating of 95.9.
“Pretty well,” was Kaepernick’s answer when asked Wednesday to assess how he’s played. “There are obviously games I would have liked to play better in, a couple games we’d like to have back as far as trying to get wins, but that’s going to happen.”
What Kaepernick gives the 49ers that Smith does not is mobility. Smith has rushed 29 times for 134 yards, while Kaepernick has 60 carries for 410 yards and five TDs — Kaepernick is more adept at extending plays with his feet.
“He’s acquitted himself very well,” Harbaugh said.
But not fully. What happens if Kaepernick plays like what he is — a second-year quarterback — in the playoffs? What happens if the 49ers flame out in the first or second round?
Harbaugh and Kaepernick insist they’re not concerned about that.
“He handles it like he handles his business every week,” Kaepernick said of the scrutiny on Harbaugh. “He’s trying to do what’s best for the team and trying to make sure this team is winning.” Follow Craig Morgan on Twitter