Column: Is Kaepernick worth the risk this year?

It was just a few months ago _ also known as forever in NFL time _ that San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh stood in front of the media and proclaimed his love for Alex Smith.

After Sunday’s debacle in St. Louis, Harbaugh might want to do it again.

That Colin Kaepernick is a fine young talent who may someday win a Super Bowl for the 49ers or some other team isn’t up for debate. He has a rare combination of size, running ability and arm strength to win a lot of games for a lot of years in the NFL.

It’s why Harbaugh was so star struck after Kaepernick’s first start against the Bears on Monday night two weeks ago that he kept him on the job. It’s why Smith watched from the sidelines once again against the Rams despite a clear head and some sterling credentials of his own.

Four games away from the playoffs, though, the steady hand of Smith might be the best ticket the 49ers can punch to get to the Super Bowl in New Orleans.

Except Harbaugh seems as smitten with his second-year quarterback as ever.

“It was a tough game for a quarterback to play in,” Harbaugh said. “I thought he did well.”

At times Kaepernick certainly did, particularly when he made up for a series of miscues with a spectacular 50-yard scramble that put the 49ers in position to win the game against the Rams. But the drive ended with a field goal, the game went to overtime, and the Rams finally ended it with a late kick for a 16-13 win.

Had the Rams not put those points on the board with 26 seconds left in OT something other than a quarterback controversy might be the legacy of the game. It could easily have been the second tie game between the two teams in three weeks _ something that was such a long shot even Vegas oddsmakers wouldn’t put a price on it.

Instead, the focus for 49er fans will be on a quarterback controversy that didn’t need to be.

Argue all you want about Kaepernick’s potential and ability _ he certainly has plenty of both. But don’t forget Smith took the 49ers to within a field goal of the Super Bowl last year and his only mistake this year was to suffer a concussion that forced him off the field in the tie against the Rams in San Francisco.

“I feel like the only thing I did to lose my job was get a concussion,” a somewhat perplexed Smith said earlier in the week.

Not that anyone should feel sorry for Smith. The former No. 1 pick had his chances but didn’t play well in a variety of different schemes in San Francisco before finally flourishing under Harbaugh in a breakout season last year.

That won him a new $33 million contract, with $16.5 million guaranteed. But it didn’t stop the 49ers from almost straying a few months later when they took a close look at free agent Peyton Manning before deciding to stick with the quarterback they had.

And it didn’t stop the coach/quarterback guru from sticking with Kaepernick even when Smith was cleared to play, declaring he would go with the quarterback with the “hot hand.”

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