There is no rule, written or unwritten, that says a player can't lose his starting job in the NFL because of injury. It is a nice concept -- fair and honorable and just, given the demands of the job and the inherent risk of injury -- but it simply isn't true, no matter what any coach claims.
Starting jobs are won and lost every week because this is a results-oriented business. Coaches don't typically keep their jobs for long. They must win now. So they always go with the players they think give them the best opportunity to win that week. They aren't in this for charity.
San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh made his choice. It was tough and complex and, to some, unfair. Alex Smith had been performing at a high level. Colin Kaepernick simply played better. For the third straight game and the second straight since Smith was medically cleared to play after suffering a concussion, Kaepernick will be the 49ers' starting quarterback against St. Louis. Smith will be the backup. Harbaugh's decision was based on merit and the tape and a gut feel that only a coach can have. Given his clumsy explanation and his refusal to delve into the specifics of how he came to choose Kaepernick, Harbaugh showed just how hard of a choice it was for him.
"What tips the scale is Colin, we believe, has the hot hand, and we'll go with Colin," Harbaugh said on Wednesday. "And we'll go with Alex. They're both our guys."
Except they aren't. Kaepernick is the guy.
It is unfortunate, to say the least, that Smith is essentially penalized for reporting concussion symptoms he experienced in the Niners' last game against St. Louis on Nov. 11. After throwing a touchdown pass to Michael Crabtree early in the second quarter, Smith reported that his vision was blurry. He indeed had a concussion. He did what the league wants players to do: tell the truth about head injuries so they can be treated properly for their own good.
That cost Smith his starting job last week against New Orleans and this week against St. Louis and maybe for the rest of this stellar 49ers season. It very well could cost Smith, 28, his career in San Francisco, where he has a 38-36-1 regular-season record in eight seasons, including 6-2-1 this season. Including the Niners' run to the NFC Championship Game last season, Smith is 20-6-1 with Harbaugh as his coach. He leads the NFL this season with a 70.0 completion percentage and is fifth with a 104.1 passer rating.
Smith was playing well, so to get benched after suffering a concussion is brutal, and unfortunately the message Harbaugh sends is that it's better for players to hide an injury, particularly a head injury, than to report it.
"That would be something to worry about," Harbaugh said. "I would never want that message to be sent to our players, nor would that message ever be sent to our players."
Whatever you say, coach. The fact remains that, regardless of how unjust it is to Smith, players can, do and have lost their starting jobs because of injuries. All Smith would need to do is call Kevin Kolb and ask him. In the 2010 season opener for Philadelphia, Kolb suffered a concussion in the first half against Green Bay. Michael Vick came in, played lights out and never relinquished the starting job. Much like Kaepernick, Vick had the hot hand that season, and Andy Reid stuck with him. After the season, the Eagles traded Kolb to Arizona.
John Elway, Denver's executive vice president of football operations, said that problems only arise when coaches promise players they won't lose their starting jobs because of injury. He saw it happen as a player for Denver, and it helped shape his philosophy as a front office executive.
"I've been in situations as a player where coaches guaranteed they'd be the starter and they wouldn't lose their job because of injury and then they did lose their job because the other person was playing well," Elway said. "It creates a lot of bad blood. You don't want to commit one way or the other because you never know where you're going to be three, four, five weeks down the line.
"Times change and weeks change as you go through the season. Sometimes you're playing well and a lot of things are going on and everybody's going in the right direction and playing well. It's an incident you look at one game at a time, and you don't guarantee it beforehand. You evaluate where you are as a football team and make the best decision for your team."
That's what Harbaugh did. He made the best decision for his team, tough as it was, proving yet again that players can, and do, lose their starting job because of injury.
What's taking place in Philadelphia is sad. An era is ending, and not gracefully. The Eagles have lost seven straight games, and it is conceivable that number will swell to 12 before this season mercifully comes to a close and the eventuality that owner Jeffrey Lurie will fire coach Andy Reid becomes a reality.
The Eagles have had 14 mostly good, sometimes great, years under Reid, but it is over. The bloodletting began in October when Reid fired defensive coordinator Juan Castillo and has continued with Lurie firing a public relations official and a front office executive and, this week, Reid firing starting defensive end Jason Babin. Cut. Goodbye. Get out.
For all of its flaws, Philadelphia is a fantastic football town. The fans are nasty, yes, but they are passionate and supportive and demanding. They yearn for a Super Bowl championship. But once the Eagles' job opens, it's not going to be a particularly attractive one. It is a complete tear-down and rebuild. The new coach will have to decide what to do with Michael Vick, who is unlikely to be back. Two games into his career, Nick Foles doesn't appear to be the answer. The Eagles probably will have a top-five draft pick in a year in which there won't be a can't-miss quarterback prospect like Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III.
Philadelphia is also thin at several positions because of poor drafts under general manager Howie Roseman. The secondary needs to be overhauled. The offensive line needs depth. The defensive front needs to be reconfigured in a system that has proved successful, unlike the wide nine. And the new coach is going to have to set a stern tone with many players who are used to a softer touch.
This is going to take time in a city where the fans aren't exactly patient or happy. Why would a hot, top coaching candidate choose Philadelphia when there might be other, more attractive openings in Carolina, Dallas, Cleveland, San Diego and Arizona? The simple answer is, he wouldn't. This job probably will be filled by someone Eagles fans have never heard of, just like it was 14 years ago.
• • •
Babin's bad week got worse Wednesday, when Jacksonville claimed the former Philadelphia starting defensive end off waivers. Three teams put in a claim for Babin, 32. Jacksonville won because, at 2-9, the Jaguars were second in line to get him and the 1-10 Chiefs didn't make a claim.
So not only does Babin leave the defensive line coach, Jim Washburn, who turned him into a Pro Bowl player in 2010 in Tennessee and 2011 in Philadelphia, he goes to another team with no shot at the playoffs. He also loses his ability to become a free agent at the end of this season unless Jacksonville cuts him.
There was a way for this to end well for Babin, but getting claimed by Jacksonville wasn't it.
• • •
The NFL on Wednesday fined Detroit defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh $30,000 for kicking Houston quarterback Matt Schaub in the groin on Thanksgiving. The message was clear. The league no longer believes Suh deserves the benefit of the doubt.
The Lions and Suh have maintained that Suh inadvertently kicked Schaub as he was spun toward the ground trying to rush the passer. Watching the replay 30 times, it is impossible to tell whether Suh did it on purpose or by accident. You really could make a case for either because he appears to punch his foot toward Schaub.
It is impossible to determine intent, but the NFL clearly decided Suh did it on purpose. Suh has a reputation, cultivated during three eventful seasons in the league. He served a two-game suspension in 2011 for stomping on Green Bay offensive lineman Evan Dietrich-Smith in another Thanksgiving game. He has twice been named the dirtiest player in the game by his peers.
So Suh doesn't have anyone to blame for the fine but himself. He earned it. He doesn't get the benefit of the doubt on anything, and he won't until he cleans up his act both on and off the field. Suh should be happy Roger Goodell didn't suspend him again.
• • •
There's good news locked into the bad news for Baltimore regarding Joe Flacco: The Ravens' three hardest remaining games -- against Pittsburgh, Denver and the New York Giants -- are at home, starting Sunday against the Steelers.
Flacco has not played particularly well away from M&T Bank Stadium. In five home games this season, Flacco has completed 66.5 percent of his passes for an average of 322.4 yards per game, with 10 touchdowns and three interceptions. In six games on the road, he has completed 56.2 percent of his passes for an average of 206.3 yards per game, with just four touchdowns and four interceptions. Flacco's passing yardage numbers on the road: 232, 187, 147, 153, 164 and 355 last week at San Diego.
Flacco is playing for a new contract. He could have had a deal before the season started, but he trusted himself to play well enough to get a maximum contract. Good for him. But even though Baltimore is 9-2, he has not played well enough on the road. The Ravens have been able to overcome it sometimes, as they did two weeks ago at Pittsburgh, but eventually it could really hurt them.
• • •
Seattle has a huge home-field advantage at CenturyLink Field, but when are the Seahawks going to learn how to win on the road? They are 1-5 on the road this season -- 5-0 at home. The loss at Miami in Week 12 clinched their sixth consecutive season with a losing road record. Also, over the last three seasons, Seattle is 14-7 at home but just 6-16 on the road, and according to ESPN Stats & Information, only Arizona has a larger difference in winning percentage between home and away games.
The 6-5 Seahawks play at Chicago on Sunday and are still in contention for a wild-card playoff spot, but that will only get them another road game.
This season's playoffs are going to be mostly filled with teams that played in the postseason a year ago, and one of them just might be the Cincinnati Bengals, who are 6-5 and tied with Pittsburgh for second place in the AFC North. Andy Dalton and A.J. Green get the most attention, but Greg Cosell thinks the key really has been the play of the defense during the Bengals' three-game winning streak.
"I think [defensive coordinator] Mike Zimmer does an unbelievably good job with different alignments, different looks, different pressure concepts and cover concepts," said Cosell, the executive producer of ESPN's "NFL Matchup." "They're simple and multiple at the same time. I think they're really good. People are going to say, 'Who have they played?' I'm looking at concepts. Is their secondary great as individuals? No. Is there a game they could be burned? Sure. But what I see on film is that they tactically do things to beat offenses."
Like last week against the Raiders. Against an offensive line that lacks athleticism, the Bengals sacked quarterback Carson Palmer four times and knocked him down plenty of others.
"They got so many people clean to the quarterback," Cosell said. "You don't see that quite that often in the NFL where there's unblocked defenders running at the quarterback."
This week, the Bengals will face San Diego, another team with an offensive line that is not particularly athletic. Philip Rivers prefers to stay in the pocket and is not much of a runner outside of it.
"The Bengals' defensive line and what they do with pressure concepts will cause significant problems," Cosell said.
If the Bengals win, they will be 7-5 and potentially could create space between themselves and the Steelers, who play at Baltimore on Sunday.
STATS & INFO
At age 27, in his seventh season and on his third team, Chicago Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall has finally found a happy home. In only 11 games, he has already put up his sixth 1,000-yard receiving season, has matched his 2011 reception total of 81 and is on pace for career highs in catches, receiving yards and touchdowns.
There is no doubt that Marshall is the man. Want proof? According to ESPN Stats & Information, Marshall has been targeted 121 times this season, the third most in the NFL. The next highest Chicago receiver, Earl Bennett, has been targeted only 39 times. That 82-target differential between Marshall and Bennett is 32 more than the next highest duo, Indianapolis's Reggie Wayne and Donnie Avery. Avery has been targeted 50 fewer times than Wayne.
What does it mean? The Bears can ill afford to lose Marshall.
"Thank for the support and relax on the P Manning story, just two warriors showing each other respect..."
-- Jamaal Charles (@jcharles25) November 27, 2012
After losing to the Denver Broncos on Sunday, Jamaal Charles asked Peyton Manning for his autograph for his mother. Big deal. It wouldn't be a big deal if Charles wanted the autograph for himself, either. Players do this all the time. Some collect memorabilia. Others get autographs. It doesn't mean Charles wasn't upset that the Chiefs lost for the 10th time this season or that Manning threw for 285 yards and two touchdowns.
"I got @jcharles25's autograph at the pro bowl 2010. We can't be fans? I switch jerseys with players damn near every game. Y'all trippin'."
-- Arian Foster (@ArianFoster) November 27, 2012
Seriously. Not a big deal.
"Never got the chance to meet Sean Taylor, but his legacy is embedded in our franchise. Because of that...We play with him every game"
-- Robert Griffin III (@RGIII) November 27, 2012
Tuesday was the fifth anniversary of former Washington safety Sean Taylor's murder. A life lost too soon.
All games Sunday unless otherwise noted. All times ET.
Seattle (6-5) at Chicago (8-3), 1 p.m.
The Bears look to distance themselves from the Packers against a team that has only one road win, and that was at Carolina. Bears 28, Seahawks 17.
Houston (10-1) at Tennessee (4-7), 1 p.m.
The Texans are playing for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. That should be huge motivation. Texans 35, Titans 14.
New England (8-3) at Miami (5-6), 1 p.m.
Tom Brady is putting up MVP-type numbers, with 24 touchdown passes, three interceptions and 3,299 yards. Patriots 42, Dolphins 20.
Jacksonville (2-9) at Buffalo (4-7), 1 p.m.
The Jaguars have played well for two consecutive weeks. Make it three. Jaguars 17, Bills 14.
Indianapolis (7-4) at Detroit (4-7), 1 p.m.
The Colts are the feel-good story of the NFL this year. They finish with Houston twice in the last three weeks of the season. Have to win now. Colts 24, Lions 23.
Carolina (3-8) at Kansas City (1-10), 1 p.m.
Battle of the bottom feeders. Yawn. Panthers 17, Chiefs 16.
Minnesota (6-5) at Green Bay (7-4), 1 p.m.
The Packers got smacked last week after five straight wins. This is a huge bounce-back game for them to keep pace with the Bears. Packers 27, Vikings 20.
San Francisco (8-2-1) at St. Louis (4-6-1), 1 p.m.
A quarterback controversy? What quarterback controversy? Not in San Francisco. Really. Just ask Harbaugh. 49ers 28, Rams 24.
Arizona (4-7) at New York Jets (4-7), 1 p.m.
Fireman Ed has given up on the Jets. The season must be over. Cardinals 16, Jets 13.
Tampa Bay (6-5) at Broncos (8-3), 4:05 p.m.
No team is hotter in the NFL than Denver, winner of six straight. Broncos 35, Buccaneers 23.
Pittsburgh (6-5) at Baltimore (9-2), 4:25 p.m.
When last these teams met two weeks ago, one game separated them in the standings. Now, the Ravens can bury their archrival in Baltimore, where they haven't lost in nearly two years. Ravens 28, Pittsburgh 17.
Cincinnati (6-5) at San Diego (4-7), 4:25 p.m.
This is a pivotal game for the Bengals, who are still clawing for a playoff spot. The Chargers? Not so much. Bengals 24, Chargers 20.
Cleveland (3-8) at Oakland (3-8), 4:25 p.m.
Mike Holmgren jumped ship. It is understandable. He leaves behind good, young pieces and a team that's still playing hard. Browns 23, Raiders 13.
Philadelphia (3-8) at Dallas (5-6), 8:20 p.m.
The Eagles have lost seven straight games. The wheels have fallen off. They might not win another game. Cowboys 35, Eagles 12.
New York Giants (7-4) at Washington (5-6), 8:30 p.m. Monday
When they want to be, the Giants are as tough an out as anybody. They should be mentally engaged against RG3. Giants 31, Redskins 17.
Last week: 10-3. Season: 109-54.