METAIRIE, La. — When Colin Kaepernick completed his impressive first career NFL start, a 32-7 win over Chicago, the drumbeat of controversy began its inevitable march.
Will Kaepernick start against New Orleans on Sunday in a 3:25 p.m. game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome? Or will Alex Smith, the eight-year veteran in the midst of his best season as a pro?
For the Saints (5-5), the answer comes down basically to this – it doesn’t matter.
“I’m not sure what (49ers coach Jim) Harbaugh’s doing or what he has planned,” Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “That’s not my concern. Whatever quarterback goes out there, we’ve got to be ready to play. ... We’re going to prepare the same for either one of them.”
Wednesday night, SI.com’s Jim Trotter reported that a 49ers source told him Harbaugh had decided on Kaepernick.
The reason this has become an issue is Kaepernick’s game against Chicago. He started in place of Smith, who was out with a concussion, and dazzled those who watched the San Francisco (7-2-1) win.
The second-year quarterback finished his night 16 of 23 for 243 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. He ran an offense that continually changed formations and kept what, heading into the game, was the No. 5 total defense in the NFL in disarray.
Yet, Smith and Kaepernick aren’t all that different, several Saints players hinted at this week.
Kaepernick may get out of the pocket a little bit more than Smith, but that’s about it. And yet, anyone who remembers the Saints’ playoff loss at San Francisco in January knows that Smith also can run, his 28-yard touchdown run shocking those unfamiliar with his game.
Kaepernick is third on the team with 189 yards rushing on 25 carries while Smith is just behind him with 134 yards on 29 carries.
Linebacker Jonathan Casillas described the main difference coming in San Francisco's passing routes. The 49ers tend to call more downfield routes with Smith in the game while the receivers' routes just get deeper with Kaepernick running the offense.
San Francisco tight end Vernon Davis had a bit of a different take.
“Alex is crafty,” Davis said. “He’s smart; he’s been in the game for a while now. He knows how to win games and that’s what I appreciate about him. Kaepernick is just a true playmaker. He can run, he can throw, he can do it all.”
Before his concussion, Smith was on pace for his best season. He’s completing 70 percent of his passes this season for 1,731 yards, 13 touchdowns and just five interceptions. His 104.1 rating would be a career high and is third in the NFL.
Kaepernick, meanwhile, is 32 of 49 this season for 449 yards and two touchdowns. But in the past two weeks, when he has the bulk of his playing time in place of the injured Smith, he is 27 of 40 for 360 yards and two scores.
“They’re both athletic quarterbacks,” Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton said. “They kind of do the same thing. I wouldn’t say there’s much difference in either or.”
Added defensive end Will Smith, “I think the offense is still run the same way. It’s run through their run game and their play-action game. Kaepernick is more of a scrambler. They may not expand the playbook as much with Smith, but essentially they’re the same thing.”