SAN FRANCISCO -- Calm down. It was only one game. Just one.
It was not proof positive that Colin Kaepernick is the 49ers' long-term quarterbacking answer.
But he is definitely no longer a question.
Kaepernick, who was drafted in 2011 and has sat behind Alex Smith for his first season and a half, started his first NFL game Monday night because of Smith's concussion a week earlier.
You might say Kaepernick passed the audition as a prime-time player.
And you might say that his head coach, Jim Harbaugh, implied that Kaepernick will therefore be in line for some Sunday afternoon action very soon.
In a near-perfect first half, the second-round pick from Nevada threw a touchdown pass and led three other 49ers scoring drives on the way to a 20-0 lead over a Chicago Bears defense that was statistically awesome and full of alleged blue meanies.
Then, in the second half, Kaepernick steered the 49ers on two more scoring drives and threw another TD pass as they completed their 32-7 squash job on the Bears.
How impressive was Kaepernick's performance? Impressive enough to legitimize a debate over whether he should be the 49ers' full-time starter. Kaepernick's arm looked stronger than Smith's. Kaepernick's accuracy was probably more consistent than Smith's. Kaepernick's decision-making was as good as Smith's. Kaepernick's tattoos were certainly far more awesome than Smith's.
Harbaugh, in his postgame
"We'll see," Harbaugh said. "I usually tend to go with the guy who's got the hot hand. And we've got two quarterbacks that have got a hot hand. Thought Colin did an outstanding job. Thought he did a great job."
So let the debate begin. But do not read too much into Harbaugh's remarks. Knowing the way that he operates, the last thing he will ever do is proclaim Kaepernick as the unambiguous new No. 1 quarterback.
For one thing, Harbaugh will want to keep the New Orleans Saints guessing in the lead-up to Sunday's game at the Superdome. For another, Smith's injury might keep him out a while longer, anyway.
But after Monday night, we can be pretty sure of this: If Smith does return to his starting job, he will be on a much shorter leash if he gets off to a bad first half.
That said, as convincing as Monday night was for Kaepernick, he still must be evaluated on several levels. Chicago kept stacking its front seven defenders against the run, giving Kaepernick more space to find his receivers. Also, whereas the 49ers defense played one of its best games and tenderized Chicago quarterback Jason Campbell into a lump of painful flesh, the Bears defense was often mentally absent.
None of this should diminish the many fine passes of Kaepernick, so numerous that it was hard to pinpoint the one you'd put a gold star beside.
Was it the sweet 22-yard throw Kaepernick made to tight end Vernon Davis on the game's first drive on a hard-to-execute sideline pattern?
Was it the beauty of a 57-yard pass to Kyle Williams on the second offensive drive, with the ball spiraling so perfectly that it induced weeping among season ticket holders in the stands wearing Joe Montana jerseys?
Was it the perfectly timed touchdown throw on the very next play to Davis for six points?
Was it the patience Kaepernick showed on his 10-yard third quarter touchdown pass, when he bought time by moving out of the pocket and waited for receiver Michael Crabtree to clear coverage before finding open space in the end zone?
Yes, yes, yes. And yes.
All of this must warm Harbaugh's now-regular heartbeat, knowing he possesses two good quarterbacking options as he ponders which man to play. Smith has certainly shown he can win games on the big stage. His performance in the playoff victory over New Orleans last season gives him some real capital in the starting-quarterback bank.
Also keep in mind that Kaepernick has had his first two stretches of extended 49ers action -- during a relief appearance in the tie game against St. Louis on Nov. 11 and during Monday's victory over Chicago -- in front of the friendly voices at Candlestick Park. Pro football talent evaluators say you can never know for sure about an NFL quarterback's poise until he ventures into an opposing stadium for a crucial game, with vile noise filling his helmet ear holes and pressure on his shoulders.
Of course, Sunday's game at New Orleans might give Kaepernick a shot at proving he can handle the vileness. So stay tuned for that potential test. You'd have to say that the way Kaepernick handled the pop quiz against the Bears is a good sign. He took most of the practice reps over the weekend and was told by Harbaugh on Sunday night that he would start, even though Smith wasn't officially ruled out by doctors until Monday morning.
But we all know when Monday's events will truly matter: in the offseason. Smith signed a three-year, $24 million deal last summer. But the contract gives the 49ers an option to release him before April 1 after paying him basically just $9 million for the first year of the agreement.
So. If Smith comes back but has an iffy December and January ... and if the 49ers believe that the Kaepernick they saw Monday is the one who will show up for the next five to 10 years ... and if team management thinks the money allocated to Smith can be better spent on other positions ...
So in that sense, perhaps this was indeed a little more than one game. It is a game that, because Kaepernick pulled himself alongside Smith in Harbaugh's mind, will resonate through the rest of the season and into the winter. Nothing wrong with that. Two guys named Montana and Young handled the creative tension of competition quite well.
It's little wonder why, as the 49ers dominated Monday's game with Kaepernick making his big statement, there was the creeping feeling that we have all been here before.
Contact Mark Purdy at email@example.com.