Former Utah Utes quarterback and No. 1 overall draft pick Alex Smith may have seen his last start for the San Francisco 49ers.
After Smith suffered a concussion the previous week, second-year backup Colin Kaepernick got the start for the 49ers on Sunday. Kaepernick led San Francisco to a 31-21 win over the Saints in New Orleans.
Kaepernick's excellent performance — 231 passing yards, one touchdown, one interception and a rushing touchdown as well — has left the 49ers with a dilemma: stay with the younger, more athletic Kaepernick, or return to Smith, who has won 20 out of 26 starts over the last two seasons?
In comments after Sunday's game, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh indicated that he just gave Smith another week to rest after his concussion. But he was also noncommittal about which player would start next week.
ESPN.com writer Mike Sando wrote Sunday that the decision could go either way.
"At the very least, Harbaugh opened the door for restoring Smith as the starter. It'll be tough reversing course after Kaepernick again showed the special talents that differentiate him from conventional quarterbacks," Sando wrote.
Smith has found life in the NFL difficult since the 49ers drafted him first overall in 2005. After leading the Utes to an undefeated season and a Fiesta Bowl win over Pitt, Smith was seen as a franchise-altering player. But coaching instability, injuries and his own inconsistent play held the 49ers back.
That changed in 2011 when, under Harbaugh, Smith posted career highs in yardage and passer rating and led the 49ers to a 13-3 record and the NFC Championship game.
Despite Smith's recent success, many see Kaepernick — drafted before Smith's 2011 season — as the superior talent.
Sando's ESPN colleague Matt Williamson argued that Kaepernick gives the 49ers more versatility on offense.
"With Kaepernick, Harbaugh can use his great offensive mind to attack the entire field," Williamson wrote. "He can also attack the defense with designed quarterback runs and plays that stem off such runs."
New York Times blogger Andy Benoit agreed that Kaepernick has more potential: "Clearly, though, San Francisco’s offense has more dimension and explosiveness with Kaepernick at the helm. He’s a better athlete and raw passer than Smith. Some might argue that Smith is a smarter player, but if Smith’s football IQ was truly anything beyond ordinary, the Niners wouldn’t have kept him confined to such a rudimentary system. Having the rudimentary system makes the transition to Kaepernick that much easier."
In the meantime, Harbaugh isn't tipping his hand about the decision.
"Alex Smith is our starting quarterback," Harbaugh told the San Francisco Chronicle. "He has not done anything to lose that job. He’s playing at a very high level.
"You also can’t categorize Colin Kaepernick as a backup quarterback. He’s started games and played very well. It’s a unique situation, because both quarterbacks are playing well."
Harbaugh told the Chronicle he would announce his decision on Wednesday.