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By Mark Gaughan

The San Francisco 49ers have fallen in love with the potential upside they see in Colin Kaepernick.

Their decision is similar to the one Wade Phillips made with the Buffalo Bills in 1999 when he pulled veteran Doug Flutie in favor of young Rob Johnson.

By going with Kaepernick over Alex Smith, Niners coach Jim Harbaugh is hoping for a playmaking bonus that can push San Francisco through the rugged battles that await in the NFC playoffs.

Smith is the fifth-rated quarterback in the NFL. He leads the league with a completion percentage of 70.0. He's accurate throwing the ball downfield. His average gain per pass attempt of 7.98 is fourth best in the league. He went 14-4 last season and he's 6-2-1 this year.

Now the concerns: The Niners don't rely too heavily on him. They're No. 1 in the league in rushing but 27th in passing yards. Smith ranked in the bottom five in pass attempts among starting QBs when he went down with a concussion.

Is Smith good enough to carry the Niners past Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan in the playoffs? Or Eli Manning? Smith passed for 299 yards in outdueling Drew Brees in the divisional round last year. But Niners coach Harbaugh obviously has his doubts.

A similar question faced Phillips in '99. The Bills ranked eighth in rushing that year. They were 19th in passing. The offense was not hot down the stretch of the season. It had produced either one or two TDs in eight of 10 games entering the regular-season finale. Then Johnson lit up Indianapolis, 31-6, in a Week 17 game that neither team needed. Both had secured a playoff spot.

Flutie's statistics were not as good as Smith's. Flutie had 19 TD passes and 16 interceptions. His passer rating ranked 24th. Flutie's NFL game never was about big statistics. His strength was moving the chains and making plays. He avoided sacks. The Bills were third in third-down conversions.

Would the Buffalo offense, the way it was playing, have been able to win road playoff games at Tennessee, Indianapolis and Jacksonville? Bills fans will debate it forever. Phillips decided the answer was “no,” and he wanted Johnson to provide a boost.

Harbaugh has refused to defend his decision in detail.

“The rationale is we've got two quarterbacks that we feel great about,” Harbaugh said this week. “Both have earned it. Deserve it. Alex over a long period of time. Colin by virtue of the last three games. Tips the scale, Colin, I believe, has the hot hand. We'll go with Colin. And we'll go with Alex. Both our guys.”

Harbaugh is leaving open the option of turning back to Smith. But the coach obviously thinks Kaepernick provides an X-factor that could make the difference in the playoffs. Kaepernick, who has elite mobility, has been sacked once in two starts. Smith, who has good mobility, took 22 sacks in eight games. Kaepernick already has 10 completions of 20-or-more yards. Smith had 22 in eight games.

“That's just Kaep being young so he takes more chances,” tight end Delanie Walker told reporters this week. “Alex is the more steady quarterback, controlling the offense, making sure we get another down. Kaep, he will take a chance and go for the big play.”

“The ball is going downfield with accuracy,” said Rams coach Jeff Fisher, who tries to defend the Niners today. “You take their running game – which, we all know how talented and productive their running game is – then you add the vertical passing game to it, it makes a huge challenge on your defense.”

Harbaugh is a great offensive coach, and his credentials as a QB tutor are unquestioned. If he wants Kaepernick, it's a gamble worth taking.

Scapegoat season

Let the scapegoating begin. Given the pressure to produce in the NFL, heads must sometimes roll. So it was in Tennessee this week where the Titans head coach Mike Munchak fired offensive coordinator Chris Palmer and replaced him with Dowell Loggains. Palmer has 20 years of NFL experience. Loggains, 32, was QB coach and has been an aide with the Titans since 2006.

The Titans have a lot of talent at running back and receiver but they're breaking in QB Jake Locker, their first-round pick last season. The Titans' defense ranks 31st in the NFL in points allowed. The root of the problem is Locker isn't good enough. He's 2-4 this season. Palmer didn't deserve to be fired on the merits of this season. Presumably, he strongly advocated drafting Locker. For that, he deserves to be held accountable.

“When you break a quarterback in, you are going to be in a situation where you are going to have your ups and downs,” Palmer told the Nashville Tennessean. “Young quarterbacks, you have to go through this period. They just don't step in and become great quarterbacks. It takes time to develop. And [WR] Kenny Britt is not 100 percent.”

Munchak, however, deserves credit for his follow-up move. He hired Tom Moore as offensive assistant to help Loggains. Moore spent 13 years as the Colts' coordinator from 1998 to 2010. He most recently was a consultant with the Jets.

Spielman courage

Chris Spielman's book, “That's Why I'm Here,” is a worthy read and a great holiday gift idea. Spielman is one of the most intense, likable, super-achievers I've ever met. He played in Buffalo only two seasons. The late, great Kent Hull liked to tell the story of walking into Ralph Wilson Stadium three hours before the 1996 preseason opener to find Spielman sitting in front of his locker, fully uniformed, helmet on. Hull told him something like, “Do you realize Marv Levy is the coach and you'll be lucky to play three plays tonight?”

The book is Spielman's open-hearted story of his wife Stefanie's battle with breast cancer and how his faith in God has given him the strength to carry on. Stefanie Spielman died in 2009.

At one point late in his career, Stefanie tells her obsessive husband: “I've never seen anyone live their dream and be so unhappy.”

Spielman recounts going to a meeting with doctors after his wife was diagnosed. He got into the parking lot at the hospital and started punching the inside of their car. “Why is this happening to us?” he hollered.

Stefanie told him: “How dare you say that with all the blessings we've been given? ... Why not us?”

It's a story of remarkable faith and uncommon strength of character.

Onside kicks

• Luke Tasker, son of the Bills' special teams great, was a unanimous first-team All-Ivy League pick for Cornell this week. Tasker caught 75 passes for 1,207 yards and eight touchdowns in 10 games. His yardage total ranked sixth in Ivy League history. Tasker ended his career ranked second on Cornell's all-time receiving yards list with 2,482. Tasker was an All-Western New Yorker at St. Francis. Also making All-Ivy was Cornell left tackle J.C. Tretter of Akron. Tretter was honorable mention All-WNY in football and third-team All-WNY in basketball.

• Sandro DeAngelis, the St. Joe's product who was the 1998 Buffalo News player of the year, just finished his eighth season in the Canadian Football League. DeAngelis doubled as both place-kicker and punter for Saskatchewan. He booted 30 of 39 field goals and had 31 punts for a 34.2 net average. The Roughriders went 8-11.

• The son of Bills Wall of Famer Jim Ritcher, Nick, is starting right tackle for the University of Richmond. Ritcher is a 6-6, 290-pound sophomore.

• The Bills can expect a sea of empty orange seats for their Dec. 23 game against the Dolphins. Paid attendance at the 75,540-seat SunLife Stadium for last week's Seattle game was 51,295. Miami is averaging 55,758 this season.

email: mgaughan@buffnews.com