Call coach Jim Harbaugh's decision whatever you like: bold, genius or even lucky.
But keeping Colin Kaepernick as the San Francisco 49ers' starting quarterback in late November instead of going back to Alex Smith fits squarely into the “risk” category.
Smith, who suffered a concussion in the first half of a Nov. 11 tie with the Rams, was deemed healthy enough to suit up Nov. 25 against the Saints. But Harbaugh stayed with Kaepernick, who had beaten the Bears the previous Monday in his first start. He beat the Saints, too.
Nonetheless, Harbaugh, a successful college quarterback at Michigan who once led the Colts to an AFC championship game as a journeyman pro, had to know the potential pitfalls with such a move:
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They did, with the 6-foot-4, 230-pound Kaepernick emerging as the team's second-leading rusher. He then set a single-game rushing record for quarterbacks with 181 yards against the Packers in an NFC divisional playoff.
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San Francisco had been successful with a more conservative, ball control attack that featured workhorse running back Frank Gore. And while the 6-4, 217-pound Smith showed flashes of athleticism — that 28-yard touchdown run in the wild fourth quarter of a 36-32 divisional playoff victory over the Saints the previous season — his biggest contribution was managing the game.
Certainly plenty of the 49ers had faith in Smith, the 2005 first overall draft pick out of Utah who had resurrected his career under Harbaugh. Going to Kaepernick, an untested second-year man out of Nevada, had to be a bit of a shock. But the 49ers got over it.
Still, on the eve of Super Bowl XLVII, Kaepernick has to be considered a long shot who paid off big. It made us think about other great risks in sports that turned out well — and some that didn't. We'll provide a sample, starting with pro football, but also touching on other sports.
Worth the risk: the Rams go with Warner
When Trent Green went down with a knee injury in the 1999 preseason, St. Louis coach Dick Vermeil gambled on a backup quarterback who had truly knocked around. Undrafted out of Northern Iowa, Kurt Warner didn't stick with the Packers (not much of a future there with Brett Favre) and played in the Arena League and NFL Europe. He threw only 11 passes for the Rams in 1998.
By the following season, the Rams had cut veterans Steve Bono and Tony Banks. Some teams would have called one of them back or sought out other experienced vets. But Vermeil played a hunch and hit the jackpot: Warner had his first of two MVP seasons, passing for 4,353 yards and 41 touchdowns for a Super Bowl champion.
Smith's super rushing effort
1987 was a second strike-interrupted season for Redskins coach Joe Gibbs, whose 1982 team won it all. At the Super Bowl in San Diego, though, the Skins weren't facing David Woodley and the Dolphins, but John Elway and the Broncos.
Gibbs' great running back John Riggins was retired. Leading rusher George Rogers was struggling with injuries. Gibbs could have given the workload to a proven back, Kelvin Bryant, but instead rolled the dice with rookie Timmy Smith, who ran for all of 126 yards in the regular season. Smith proceeded to set the Super Bowl rushing record with 204 yards on 22 carries. He had a 58-yard scoring run in a 35-point second quarter of a 42-10 romp. Yes, it was MVP Doug Williams' day with four touchdown passes in a quarter, but Smith also had a game for the ages.
The Ice Bowl
Allowing a championship to be played in inclement weather was not without precedent. The Dec. 19, 1948, NFL title game took place in a snowstorm at Philadelphia's Shibe Park. Eagles star Steve Van Buren took three trolleys to reach the stadium and ran for the only touchdown in a victory over the Chicago Cardinals.
By 1967, however, the NFL was a high-profile industry backed by television contracts. So when afternoon game time temperatures were forecast to be 15 below (minus 48 wind chill) for the New Year's Eve NFL championship at Green Bay's Lambeau Field, league officials the night before discussed the possibility of rescheduling. Commissioner Pete Rozelle let the Ice Bowl go on, and the Packers' drive to victory over the Cowboys — on Bart Starr's quarterback sneak with 16 seconds left — capped one of the iconic games in any American sport. It sent Green Bay to Miami for Super Bowl II and likely had the league's brass glad they were putting the showcase game in warm climates. (Let's see what the weather is like in next season's game in New Jersey.)
"Miracle" on ice
Herb Brooks might not have gotten away with this today. After coaching Minnesota to the 1979 NCAA hockey championship, he chose nine men who had played for him in the Gophers program to the fabled 1980 U.S. Olympic team.
Twelve of 20 on the roster were natives of Minnesota. Some of them, including Neal Broten, Mark Pavelich and Rob McClanahan, had good NHL careers. So did Bowling Green defenseman Ken Morrow (four Stanley Cups with the Islanders) and Wisconsin's Mark Johnson. Boston University contributed goalie Jim Craig and scrappy role player Mike Eruzione. Gold — but against the grain.
After the first round against George Foreman on that October 1974 night in Zaire, Muhammad Ali apparently didn't think he could keep up the brisk pace. So, to the dismay of his cornermen, he covered his chin, sagged against the ropes and let Big George punch himself out — a dangerous proposition against one of the heaviest hitters in history. With his younger foe exhausted, Ali scored an eighth-round knockout and became the second man to win the heavyweight title twice.
Willis Reed inspires Knicks
Things looked bleak for New York heading to Game 7 of the 1969-70 NBA Finals. Knicks center Willis Reed tore a leg muscle in Game 5 and missed Game 6, which the Los Angeles Lakers won behind Wilt Chamberlain's 45 points.
But Reed limped onto the court and the Madison Square Garden crowd roared. The Lakers stopped and watched him during warmups. Then the big lefty scored the first two baskets of the game — his only field goals in 27 minutes — and the Lakers were never in it. Reed risked further damage to his leg and inspired his teammates. He managed four more seasons, with one more NBA title, in completing his Hall of Fame career.
Connie Mack's surprise
Philadelphia Athletics owner-manager Connie Mack tabbed side-arming right-hander Howard Ehmke to start Game 1 of the 1929 World Series against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. Mack was taking a risk for two reasons. He had a host of outstanding starters: hall of famer Lefty Grove (20 wins), George Earnshaw (24) and Rube Walberg (18). And — this would drive today's routine-oriented coaches batty — Mack gave Ehmke a week off before the series to scout the Cubs.
So Ehmke, 35, the ninth man on a 10-man staff who was nearing the end of his career, struck out a then-Series record 13 in a complete-game 3-1 victory.
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