By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - Jim Harbaugh is hardly the first coach to fall on his sword for an underperforming quarterback but his reaction to queries about Colin Kaepernick's recent struggles was perplexing.
"I think he's doing a heck of a job," Harbaugh told reporters earlier this week when asked about his signal caller's issues. "I guess I'd be puzzled to why people would think that (he is struggling). What's most important is what we see. I'm puzzled to why you or anybody else thinks that."
Let's see. Kaepernick has thrown for a total of 218 yards over his past two contests -- losses to NFC South heavyweights Carolina and New Orleans -- and San Francisco has fallen 3 1/2 games behind the powerful Seattle Seahawks in the NFC West.
He has thrown only 11 touchdowns in 10 games, his passer rating is a pedestrian 81.8, and Kaepernick is ranked 31st in the NFL with a completion percentage at 56.2.
Meanwhile, remember the knock on Alex Smith when he was leading things in San Francisco? It was all about Smith's inability to make the big play and stretch the field. Well, despite his prodigious arm strength, Kaepernick has produced just 24 pass plays of 20-or-more yards in 2013, good for 30th in the NFL.
Puzzled now coach?
There are really only two explanations for Harbaugh's off-base critique of Kaepernick.
He's either trying to protect his struggling frontman and being purposefully disingenuous -- the most logical and acceptable answer -- or he is attempting to deflect people from revisiting the benching of a guy who is currently 28-6-1 over his last 35 NFL starts (Smith).
Harbaugh looked like a genius at this time last year, devising what may have been the best game plan of his career on "Monday Night Football" in Chicago, turning Kaepernick into Superman against the NFL's most opportunistic defense during an emphatic 32-7 Niners win over the Bears.
Expecting a run-first quarterback, the Bears were stunned to see a confident Kaepernick stand steady in the pocket and throw for two touchdowns in his first career start.
Playing in place of the injured Smith, who was suffering from the effects of a concussion he sustained in a tie against St. Louis the week prior, Kaepernick finished 16-for-23 for 243 yards and led the 49ers to scores on their first four possessions.
Kaepernick's first game at the helm of the 49ers produced more yards and touchdowns than Joe Montana's and Steve Young's debuts combined.
So, despite winning 20 of his last 26 as the quarterback in San Francisco Smith, who is now 9-1 as the leader of the Kansas City Chiefs, would never start another game for the Niners.
Kaepernick is now only 12-7 as the Niners starter since that explosive debut in the Second City and that includes his impressive playoff run which ended five yards short of a Super Bowl championship. As a regular-season starter, he is 10-6, a good but certainly not great "full season."
Harbaugh has contributed to Kaepernick's woes this year by pulling back the reins a bit, the result of seeing Baltimore's Terrell Suggs ignore the inside run during the Super Bowl to take aim his QB time and time again.
What's supposed to set signal callers like Kaepernick apart, however, is the dual-threat ability and while he is currently fourth among QBs with 335 yards rushing, Harbaugh seems spooked to let Kaepernick loose because backups Colt McCoy and McLeod Bethel-Thompson can't run the same type of offense.
On the other hand, the 49ers impressive supporting cast has masked some of the hiccups in Kaepernick's game and more help is on the way in the form of receiver Michael Crabtree, who returned to practice this week for the first time after suffering a torn Achilles back in May.
Crabtree, though, probably won't be activated for Monday's game with the Redskins meaning Kaepernick will have to finds other ways to get the ball down field for at least another week.
"We'll see," Harbaugh said of activating Crabtree. "I think he's close."
To be fair to Harbaugh, Smith is what he is. The Utah product has never lived up to his billing as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft and has settled in as a game manager, a tag most quarterbacks feel is comparable to kicking their dog.
That said, a coach has to understand his own situation and this 49ers team is good enough everywhere else to win a Super Bowl with a Brad Johnson-like game manager.
Remember being 6-2-1 with Smith in 2012 and losing in the NFC Championship the year prior wasn't good enough for this organization. So why is 10-6 over the last 16 regular-season games with Kaepernick acceptable?
His purported big-play ability has been overblown, his accuracy spotty and Kaepernick has lacked consistency from week-to-week, the very word Harbaugh mistakenly used to describe him,
"He's been consistently good," the coach overstated. "He's been like that every week he's been backup or a starter."
Now that's puzzling.
11/22 15:48:28 ET