by Ryan Hagerty (@Hags_Ryan)
NFL Columnist for The Grandstand Gazette
In 2001 Drew Bledsoe, then starting quarterback for the New England Patriots, went down with an injury in a Week Two game at the New York Jets. It was an injury that forced New England to put in second-year quarterback Tom Brady, who was a sixth round draft pick out of The University of Michigan in 2000. Heading into the game, the former Wolverine was only 1-3 passing for six yards, so clearly he was untested. Patriot nation was not optimistic about Brady replacing Bledsoe, who was a former Pro-Bowl player who took the team to a Super Bowl. The season was surely lost.
And then something amazing happened.
The backup quarterback took the team on his back, finishing the season with an 11-5 record and a playoff berth. By this time, Bledsoe was healthy enough to play, but the Pats elected to ride the hot hand of Brady. The youngster went on to defeat Kurt Warner and the St. Louis Rams in the Super Bowl. Bledsoe went to Buffalo in the off-season, and the Brady era took flight. It was a miraculous year for New England and the start to a new dynasty.
Now let’s flash forward to the present, because there is an eerily similar situation brewing in San Francisco.
Alex Smith entered the 2012 season as the San Francisco 49ers starting quarterback. The veteran signal caller led the team to an NFC championship appearance the previous year, so his job was in no jeopardy.
Or so we thought.
For the first half of the year Smith was sharp. The Utah product was extremely efficient, completing 70.2 percent of his passes for 13 touchdowns and only five interceptions. And then in a Week 10 home game against the Rams, Smith got knocked out of the game with a concussion and was replaced by backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick. At the time, it was a crushing blow to the Super Bowl contending team. Kaepernick went on to tie with the St. Louis Rams, and with Smith out, he got the nod to start at quarterback the following week at home against the Chicago Bears. A young and inexperienced signal caller going up against the best defense in the league was not an ideal situation for San Fran.
The former second round draft pick out of Nevada tore apart the Bears stout defense for 243 yards and two touchdowns en route to a 35-7 win. After such an outstanding performance against the league’s top D, everyone wondered whether or not Smith would actually start when healthy. They also wondered if Kaepernick could build on such a stellar game.
Two weeks later, the 49ers went out to St.Louis to take on the Rams once again. Smith was ready to go, but head coach Jim Harbaugh opted to go with the hot hand and started Kaepernick.
The team never looked back. The 49ers went on finish 11-4-1, good enough for a first round bye.
Kaepernick had a highlight reel day in the Divisional Round against Green Bay, passing for 263 yards and two touchdowns while rushing for 181 yards and two touchdowns. This resulted in a 45-31 win. Next week, the Niners went to Atlanta where Kaepernick continued to impress. The speedy 6’4” quarterback led a come-from-behind victory from 17 down to beat the No. 1 seeded Falcons, setting up a Super Bowl matchup against the Baltimore Ravens.
Two Sundays from now, Kaepernick will look to become the first quarterback since Tom Brady to come off the bench and quarterback a team to a Super Bowl title in the same season.
When Brady took over in 2001, Bledsoe had a stranglehold on the job, just like Smith did this year. It takes a special player to take away the starting job from a quarterback who has proven himself in the playoffs and both of these guys are incredible talents.
Now I know that it is not possible to compare these quarterback’s careers at this time, or even playing styles, but it is not a stretch at all to compare this year for San Fran to the 2001 season for New England. When Kaepernick takes the field against the Ravens, he will look to do what Smith couldn’t.
Last year he was carrying a clipboard, this year he is carrying a team.