What a mess Jim Harbaugh has made for himself with the San Francisco 49ers. If you made a list of the coaching tenets he has broken, it would cover about one through 10.
Among them: Don't mess with your starting quarterback unless it's absolutely necessary or he's named Mark Sanchez, and maybe not even then; don't mess with your team chemistry if you're winning; if ain't broke, don't fix it.
There's only one scenario in which Harbaugh doesn't end the season looking like a complete idiot: Win the Super Bowl. Anything short of that, and he spends the entire off-season, and maybe beyond, answering the question: Why did he bench Alex Smith at the top of his game?
You know the story. Smith had a concussion, so Harbaugh replaced him with Colin Kaepernick against the Bears. Kaepernick played like Joe Montana with Steve Young's legs. A week later, when it was fairly certain Smith was ready to play, Harbaugh started Kaepernick again, against the Saints, saying he wanted to go with "the hot hand." The 49ers' victory, the media proclaimed, validated Harbaugh's decision, even though they would have lost if the defense hadn't scored two touchdowns on interception returns.
A week later, Harbaugh started Kaepernick again and the Niners lost by three points in overtime to the Rams. Kaepernick gave up a safety on an intentional grounding call and pitched the ball over a teammate's head for a fumble that the Rams recovered in the end zone for a touchdown. He completed 21-of-32 passes for 208 yards and no touchdowns.
So much for the "hot hand." So now what does Harbaugh do? He can't go back to Smith because that's a total face loss. That might account for why he praised Kaepernick's weak play against the Rams in the face of obvious evidence to the contrary. Not surprisingly, he has named Kaepernick the starter this Sunday.
"I'm proud of Kap, proud of the way he played," Harbaugh said. "He handled himself well, gave our team a chance to win."
Clearly, he's in a bind and has only himself to blame. Even if he does restore Smith's starting job now, he's probably damaged the quarterback's confidence and the faith of his team. And no coach wants to have a merry-go-round at quarterback. Harbaugh has tried to counter the backlash with nonsense coachspeak such as, "We have the opposite of a quarterback controversy."
Whether Kaepernick plays superbly or not is irrelevant. It was still a bad decision to bench Smith. You don't bench a quarterback who has won 19 of his last 25 starts and put your team in first place. You don't bench a guy who has completed 35 of his last 38 passes for 385 yards, five touchdowns and one interception. You don't bench a guy who is completing 70 percent of his passes (best in the NFL) and ranks fourth in the league in pass efficiency (104.1), behind only Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning and Robert Griffin, and ahead of Tom Brady and Drew Brees. You don't bench a guy who set a club record for most passes without an interception, bettering the likes of Young and Montana. You don't bench a guy who would have taken your team to the Super Bowl a year ago if not for a punt returner's fumbles. And you never take a player's job away because of an injury.
"The only thing I did to lose my job was get a concussion," said Smith.
If nothing else, Harbaugh is just disloyal. A little more than a year ago, the new 49ers coach told the media that he was impressed by Smith's loyalty to the team — specifically, by his decision to remain with the 49ers despite all the adversity, ill treatment and unfair criticism he had endured since being made the No. 1 pick in the draft out of the University of Utah in 2005.
"He's a neat guy," Harbaugh told reporters in the summer of 2011. "I'm really interested in him, in just the character of Alex Smith. He's been maligned by the hometown fans there. And he's really even been thrown under the bus by his own team more than once. And the kind of character of a guy that would want to come back, prove himself with that same football team, that's rare kind of character. (It) probably falls somewhere in the endangered and extinct range. So we can win with that."
Now Harbaugh has thrown him under the bus.
A few months ago the coach was pursuing Peyton Manning. After failing to sign the veteran quarterback, he had to smooth things over with Smith. Now what does he say to Smith if he needs him to lead the team again? How many times will Smith buy into what the Niners and their coaches tell him?
Harbaugh should know better. He was an NFL quarterback for 14 years. In 1994, he lost his starting job while ranked second in the NFL in passing. Yahoo NFL reporter Michael Silver asked several of Harbaugh's former teammates how he would have reacted if he had been Smith. Bottom line: He would've gone ballistic. Smith has remained largely silent and dignified since his benching.
This strange turn of events is only the latest in a long history of poor treatment by the club. The 49ers couldn't have mishandled their No. 1 draft pick more if they had planned it. They had seven offensive coordinators and four head coaches in his first seven seasons, and each one seemed to have a knack for doing the wrong thing with Smith. They gave him mediocre receivers. They threw him into action before he was ready. They publicly questioned his manhood by questioning the severity of a shoulder injury (which later required surgery). They benched him several times in favor of the Flavor of the Month, whether it was J.T. O'Sullivan, Shaun Hill or Troy Smith. At one point, they announced publicly that he would be released at end of season, and they berated him on the sideline in front of teammates and a national TV audience.
Then right when Smith was reaching the peak of his game, he was benched.
There is no doubt that Kaepernick is talented, but this wasn't the time to put him on the field. Smith deserved more than that.