NEW ORLEANS The last time the Super Bowl was in New Orleans, a second-year quarterback wound up with confetti on his shoulders, his hands on his temples, a smile-for-the-ages on his face and a Cadillac SUV in his Marina Bay garage. That was the prize for winning the MVP award for Super Bowl XXXVI.
It took big ones for Bill Belichick to permanently replace Drew Bledsoe with Tom Brady in 2001.
But the decision made this year by Jim Harbaugh to put his second-year backup Colin Kaepernick ahead of established starter Alex Smith was even bolder that Belichicks. And its landed the Niners right back where Belichicks call landed those Patriots. Four quarters from a championship.
Why is it bolder for Harbaugh to replace a journeyman like Smith than it was for Belichick to bench a franchise hood ornament like Bledsoe? Because of the condition the franchises were in when the decisions were made.
We acknowledge that Smiths resume compared to Bledsoe wasnt so hot before 2011.
It seemed the 49ers started moving on from Smith the day they used No. 1 overall pick on him.
Were overstating it. But Smith faceplanted so unceremoniously his rookie season one touchdown and 11 picks in seven starts for an awful Niners team he seemed destined to be another in a line of craptastic quarterbacks drafted early. A latter vintage Tim Couch or David Carr.
Smith had an encouraging 2006 but in 2007, after separating his shoulder and enduring the passive-aggressive insinuations of then-coach Mike Nolan that Smith wasnt willing to fight through the pain, it really got sticky.
Trent Dilfer, Shaun Hill, J.T. OSullivan, Troy Smith and the aforementioned Carr were all seen as legitimate options over Alex from 2007 through 2010.
Now contrast Smiths first six seasons in the NFL with those of Drew Bledsoe.
Taken with the No. 1 overall pick in 1993, Bledsoe led the Patriots to four straight wins to end his rookie year after a 1-11 start, got the Patriots to the playoffs in 1994 and started a Super Bowl in 1996. Even as his work leveled off from 1997 through 1999, he still seemed the only option the Patriots would consider at quarterback.
But the arrival of Belichick brought a precipitous drop in Bledsoes effectiveness. And loosened his hold on a job he seemed to think was his birthright.
In 2000 Belichicks first year the Patriots went 5-11. That wasnt Bledsoes fault. The team was almost bereft of offensive talent. And he tried to be a more disciplined thrower and take what was given to him by the defense.
The trouble was, he was not a quick decision-maker. He didnt trust his offensive line. He had no pocket mobility. And he was never a pinpoint thrower. Bledsoe was a gunslinger and hed grown to embrace that style.
A bad team with a porous line and no downfield threats cant prosper with a gunslinger. More often than not, by the time Bledsoe was done twirling his six-shooter, he was face down in the dirt.
But the Patriots were building a new stadium so, although Belichick had never had an issue devising defenses to stop Bledsoe when Belichick was in New York or Cleveland, ownership decided the Patriots would wed themselves to Bledsoe. A 10-year, 103-million contract was signed in January of 2001 proof enough for any corporate suit waffling about buying a luxury suite that the most recognizable player on the team was in it for the long haul.
But by training camp of 2001, Brady began showing superior accuracy, mobility and effectiveness to Bledsoe. Every day in practice. And in the preseason games that summer. It was a performance beatdown.
By the time Bledsoe had an artery in his chest sheared by Mo Lewis on the third-to-last drive of the seasons second game, the hook was coming.
In the final 18 drives Bledsoe led as a Patriots starter, 13 lasted fewer than five plays. Nine drives ended in punts, three times the Patriots failed to convert fourth down, there were two interceptions, two fumbles, a touchdown and a field goal. On 25 preseason drives, the Bledsoe-led Patriots offense gained 324 yards. The evidence was there. Mo Lewis just relieved Bledsoe of the inevitable embarrassment that was coming.
And Belichick had an out. Brady led the Patriots to a 5-2 record over their next seven games. When Bledsoe was healthy enough to return, he and Brady split some practice reps heading into a game against the St. Louis Rams. The Patriots lost 24-17 and Belichick summarily decided there would be no more splitting reps. Brady was the starter. Hed take the starters reps. He was no longer the stand-in or the sub. There would be no competition something Bledsoe yearned for. The fight was over before Bledsoe even knew he was in one.
Thats where the two stories are so starkly different. Smith has been battling, scratching and fighting for his job for years. Even though he was an unrestricted free agent heading into the 2011 season and was pretty beaten down, he led the players-only workouts for the Niners during the lockout. He signed a one-year deal worth 5 million when the lockout ended then led the Niners to a 13-3 regular-season record. He threw 19 touchdowns and five interceptions. In the playoffs, he was terrific, leading the Niners past New Orleans and throwing two touchdowns in the Niners overtime loss to the Giants in the NFC Championship Game.
After the season, despite courting Peyton Manning, the Niners gave Smith a three-year, 24 million deal to stay. And he played brilliantly. After eight weeks, the Niners were 6-2, Smith was completing more than 70 percent of his passes and hed thrown 13 touchdowns and five interceptions.
But lurking behind him on the depth chart was the dynamic Kaepernick. And when Smith suffered a concussion against the Rams after a 7-for-8 start, Kaepernick came on. Sitting out the following week against Chicago, Kaepernick was brilliant against one of the leagues better defenses. He went 16 for 23 and threw for two touchdowns in a 32-7 win.
And Harbaugh fatefully decided to go with the hot hand which was Kaepernick.
A little over two months later, Kaepernick a second-year quarterback like Brady has a chance to duplicate Bradys feat and take over a team after it left the station and lead it to a Super Bowl.
Harbaughs bold move sitting down Smith, whod led his team to 20 wins in his previous 26 starts and was playing better than he ever had could have messed with the Niners chemistry. It had the potential to turn into a chemical disaster and threaten the prospects of a team that was Super Bowl-ready.
Smith had done nothing to indicate he wasnt capable of getting the Niners to New Orleans. But Harbaugh had the guts to walk the plank for Kaepernick.
What Belichick did 11 years ago was a tough decision. But that team, coming off a 5-11 season and having gone 7-17 with Bledsoe at the controls in their previous 24 games, was stuck in the mud and saddled with a player whod reached his apex and was playing badly.
For Belichick, going to Brady was the only choice. For Harbaugh, riding with Kaepernick was the bolder choice.