Updated Saturday, November 24, 2012 at 08:51 PM
Midseason quarterback changes are usually born of desperation in the NFL.
This one spawns from ambition.
Coach Jim Harbaugh is expected to mess with San Francisco's success by starting quarterback Colin Kaepernick ahead of Alex Smith in New Orleans on Sunday, a move first reported by Jim Trotter of Sports Illustrated. The move is nothing short of shocking in a league where coaches are so reluctant to change quarterbacks midseason that many would stick with a corpse as the starter. Or Mark Sanchez.
Yet Harbaugh is about to replace Smith, who completed 25 of his last 27 passes before suffering a concussion against St. Louis in Week 10. Not only were the 49ers 6-2 under Smith the first half of this year, but they were a fumbled punt away from likely reaching the Super Bowl last season. Smith currently ranks fifth among the league's quarterbacks in passer rating.
But Kaepernick replaced the injured Smith on Monday in Chicago, and he led the 49ers to 20 first-half points against a Bears defense that had been allowing 14.8 per game. Now, Harbaugh appears ready to make a switch.
It is the kind of risk that could sink San Francisco's season or send the 49ers to the Super Bowl, and as tempting as it is to chastise Harbaugh for messing with success, the coach has looked like Midas so often that it's way too soon to declare the switch foolhardy.
Harbaugh is awkward and abrasive, but he has also been an undeniably, almost unbelievably effective coach over the past decade, from what he did at the University of San Diego to resuscitating a Stanford team from the bottom of the conference to the top 10 in the nation. Harbaugh came to San Francisco last year, and after inheriting a team that hadn't reached the playoffs since 2002, he not only had the 49ers playing for the NFC Championship, but he did it without the benefit of a full offseason of preparation.
Even this year, with San Francisco returning almost every starter, there was the feeling the 49ers wouldn't replicate the success they had last season. They were bound to suffer a few more injuries after staying extraordinarily healthy in 2011. They couldn't possibly force as many turnovers as the 38 they induced last year.
But 26 games into Harbaugh's NFL head-coaching career, his team has yet to suffer back-to-back losses and is positioned to earn a first-round postseason bye for the second consecutive season.
And now he's about to make a move that will almost certainly alter the league's hierarchy one way or the other. Starting Kaepernick while Smith is in fact available will either give San Francisco an upgrade at the most important position or show Harbaugh why you should never get bored with winning.
The 49ers didn't have to make this move. Smith had been steady, and the 49ers' postseason position was solid. Yet their coach appears poised to make a move with the belief that Kaepernick can be spectacular.
He certainly looked that way on Monday, but finding success in the NFL isn't nearly as difficult as sustaining it, and Harbaugh's gamble at quarterback will determine not only the trajectory of the 49ers' season, but the pecking order in the NFC.
Danny O'Neil: 206-464-2364 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @dannyoneil
MARCIO JOSE SANCHEZ / AP
Colin Kaepernick picked apart the Bears last week, but can he sustain that success as the 49ers' starter?