NEW ORLEANS -- There were two primary takeaways from the San Francisco 49ers' latest physically dominant performance against a potential NFC contender.
One, the 49ers can beat capable opponents, especially one-dimensional ones, in multiple ways. They might not need their quarterback to carry them through the playoffs. That separates them from teams built around quarterbacks to a disproportionate degree.
On this Sunday afternoon in Week 12, two interception returns for touchdowns off New Orleans' Drew Brees carried San Francisco to a 31-21 victory over the previously streaking Saints in the Superdome. Those plays offset Ted Ginn Jr.'s muffed punt and the interception Colin Kaepernick threw right before halftime. By comparison, the Saints could not overcome a subpar game from Brees, even at home against a team breaking in a new quarterback and traveling across the country on a short week.
The second takeaway is tougher to define, even for the 49ers. Their quarterback situation remains muddled after coach Jim Harbaugh suggested during his postgame news conference that he had gone with Kaepernick mostly because he feared exposing former starter Alex Smith to concussion-related complications. That ran counter to reports Harbaugh had made a switch mostly for what Kaepernick could offer the offense.
Why go with Kaepernick?
"The injury, and the fact that Alex had symptoms seven days later, eight days later on a concussion," Harbaugh said. "I've had some bad experiences, not going to put a guy back out there who has symptoms like he had. They were serious enough."
Smith was injured Nov. 11. The 49ers played Chicago eight days later. Smith has been symptom-free since Tuesday, according to comments Harbaugh made Friday.
Doctors cleared Smith on Saturday. Harbaugh made Smith the No. 2 quarterback Sunday. Meanwhile, Kaepernick passed for one touchdown, rushed for another, took zero sacks and helped the 49ers win third down. Smith watched from the sideline and often kept on his helmet, just in case.
"Now, he eventually got cleared," Harbaugh continued, referring to Smith, "but the thought was to rotate him back into the action. But not all the way to the front lines. Thought that would give him a chance to get cleared up completely. That was the rationale."
Smith, speaking at his locker shortly after Harbaugh addressed reporters in a separate room, said he had "no idea" how Harbaugh would proceed at the position. Harbaugh would not say whether Smith or Kaepernick would start against St. Louis in Week 13.
At the very least, Harbaugh opened the door for restoring Smith as the starter. It'll be tough reversing course after Kaepernick again showed the special talents that differentiate him from conventional quarterbacks.
Kaepernick opened scoring with a 7-yard touchdown run from a shotgun formation with two backs and two tight ends. This marked the fourth time this season San Francisco paired this run-oriented personnel grouping with a shotgun formation in the red zone. Kaepernick was the quarterback each time. The team has two rushing touchdowns to show for those plays.
Before Sunday, Tim Tebow and Robert Griffin III are the only other quarterbacks to have run the shotgun from 22 personnel in the red zone this season, each for one play and Tebow for a touchdown, according to ESPN Stats & Information. NFL teams did it five times in 2011 and seven times the year before.
It's unconventional stuff, but no surprise coming from the 49ers. Their creative use of personnel and formations set them apart when Smith was behind center. Kaepernick's mobility and arm strength further expand the possibilities. He took zero sacks Sunday and finished the game with a 72.3 Total QBR score, a figure taking into account his rushing touchdown, sack avoidance and longer pass distances.
Kaepernick, after lighting up the Bears during a 32-7 victory, now has an 85.0 QBR score through two starts. Only Aaron Rodgers (86.1) has a higher score through his first two starts since 2008, the first year for which ESPN's charting data exists. Robert Griffin III (83.2) and Andrew Luck (81.9) are next.
"When I see him play, I see a playmaker," 49ers tight end Vernon Davis said. "He has so much ability and he's always helping his team out. ... I still think Alex is the man, but it's the coaches' call and I am sure Coach Harbaugh will make the right decision."
The 49ers, perhaps playing to Kaepernick's strengths once again, went against their recent form by striking deep on third-and-short during a touchdown drive to open the second half. Tied 14-14 following Ahmad Brooks' interception return for a touchdown, Kaepernick opened the third quarter with two handoffs to Frank Gore. Then came a 23-yard pass to tight end Delanie Walker on third-and-2. Walker ran 22 additional yards for a 45-yard gain.
That was not all.
Kaepernick completed 5 of 7 passes for 54 yards and a score from outside the pocket. He has nine first downs on 18 such throws this season, compared to four first downs in 19 chances for Smith. Kaepernick completed 7 of 10 throws for 125 yards using play-action.
"He did a really nice job extending plays," Harbaugh said.
Penalties wiped out some of them, including what might have been the throw of the game for either team. Kaepernick scrambled to avoid pressure, then threaded a sideline pass to Michael Crabtree through what appeared to be a small window. Harbaugh singled out that play from the others.
"Colin played well and in a tough environment, he acquitted himself very well," Harbaugh said.
Inside the locker room, one of Smith's best friends on the team, left tackle Joe Staley, made only an "ehhh" sound when asked whether uncertainty at quarterback was affecting the team.
"It is a little weird just because me and Alex are BFFs," Staley said. "For myself, it's weird. But it's a football business, so we go out there and play. We're paid to play our position, paid to play well and paid to win. Whatever they do, that's a coach's decision and all that stuff."
Winning is the ultimate unifying force in professional sports. Players are going to have their opinions. Some surely think Smith has been railroaded. Some surely think Kaepernick gives the offense its best chance. Those viewpoints aren't exclusive, either. But until Harbaugh more clearly defines what is happening, what is there to judge beyond the results? Those results, so far, are strikingly positive.
Of course, it helps having a punishing defense on your side. While the Saints were the ones sanctioned for allegedly rewarding "cart-off" hits under previous coordinator Gregg Williams, the 49ers were the ones delivering such blows Sunday. They did it legally, too, and in devastating fashion. Safeties Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson were particularly devastating against the Saints.
"If you are out there hitting and sticking people the way we do, I mean, teams get afraid of that, man," Brooks said. "The receivers don't want to run across the middle because they know Dashon is going to hit somebody every time. Then you got the front seven that we have and two inside linebackers and corners that come up and play the run as well, teams, they kind of don't know what to do."
Brees could not argue.
"I think they're one of the best that's out there, one of the most complete when you look at all three phases," the Saints' quarterback said. "Certainly, they've got a great formula for winning."