SAN FRANCISCO -- Just like that, backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick was in the game Sunday.
He had about 10 seconds to find his helmet. He did. He had about a minute and a half to warm up his arm. He did.
So you could say that Kaepernick accomplished his first two tasks Sunday quite successfully. After that, things got a little more difficult.
"Obviously, there's a lot of room for improvement," Kaepernick, the Pitman High graduate, said, "and a lot of things I would like to do differently."
But the 49ers did learn something Sunday about Kaepernick after he was forced to take over the team's offense following starter Alex Smith's concussion in the second quarter of the very bizarro 24-24 tie against the St. Louis Rams.
Here is what the 49ers learned: Kaepernick can perform adequately if he has to see sustained action. He can keep the team in games. He can put them in position to win.
Yet here is the broader lesson we all learned: At heart, the 49ers are still not a quarterback-driven team. They are a defense-and-Frank-Gore driven team.
Just look at what happened when Smith went down and Kaepernick took over with the 49ers trailing 14-7. The people most responsible for what happened after that were the defenders (who allowed way too many yards to the Rams but made enough key stops to give the offense a chance) and Gore (who made several key runs in the fourth quarter, including a scoop-up of a Kaepernick fumble for a 12-yard gain).
So did Kaepernick matter at all? Absolutely. The quarterback always matters some. And as Smith has improved under coach Jim Harbaugh, the quarterback has mattered more. But if the 49ers must deal with an extended Smith absence, his loss won't be felt as much as it will with some teams.
This is why, when Harbaugh was asked after the game if Smith's absence had been the difference between winning and losing, Harbaugh paused a beat and said: "I wouldn't put it on any one thing." Tight end Vernon Davis probably had it correct. He gave Kaepernick a B-plus.
"He was on it, cued it up, was focused," Davis said. "He's very dedicated to his craft."
But not perfect, of course.
"It did take me a little while to get into the flow of the game," Kaepernick said.
On Kaepernick's final three offensive drives in regulation, he completed 8 of 9 passes and ran for 38 yards, including a 7-yard touchdown in which he dived for the end zone pylon.
"Everything that was in the game plan," said Harbaugh, "he was good with, comfortable with and could execute. There was no uptight-ness or tenseness. He was very good."
The Rams certainly respected the way Kaepernick stepped into a tough spot and especially the way he put his body at risk on those scrambles.
"I knew he was very athletic," said St. Louis linebacker James Laurinaitis. "When you play against athletic quarterbacks, they have opportunities to scramble and improvise. It can get a little hairy at times. The kid did a good job."
Smith's availability for next Monday night's home game against Chicago will remain up in the air as the 49ers follow league protocol on concussion recovery. Harbaugh said the QB improved overnight and would see a neurologist later Monday.
"He seems all right," Kaepernick said Sunday. "Obviously a little shaken up. But he seems OK."
With Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler also suffering a concussion Sunday, it is possible that neither team's starter will play next Monday. If that happens, Kaepernick should still give the 49ers a chance to win.Texans finding a way to win. Page C-3