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We notice Colin Kaepernick played only four snaps in Friday night's exhibition game in Kansas City. We think four snaps — one of them an overthrown pass — is unusual, brief, the lifespan of the fruit fly.

We notice all the 49ers' important players on offense and defense, except the offensive line, played only the first series. Those who came out of the game after a few fruit flies croaked were, among others, Frank Gore — one nice run — Vernon Davis, Anquan Boldin, Justin Smith, Carlos Rogers, NaVorro Bowman. I could go on.

We notice Alex Smith, now wearing the red of the Chiefs, played the entire first half. We notice, after some fact checking, that Smith played into the second quarter in the second exhibition game last season. We notice he had the same coach Kaepernick has now, Jim Harbaugh. We compare four snaps to a quarter-plus. And we wonder.

What is going on here?

If you take things at face value — never a good idea in the information void of the NFL — you'd say the Niners are one confident bunch, one swaggering army of almost-champions. They're so good they don't even need to practice. There may be some truth to that.

Harbaugh is wowed by Kaepernick, as he should be. Harbaugh may feel No. 7 is ready right now, needs no tuning up and brushing up although practice in Santa Clara never replicates the speed of games, even exhibition games. "Just end the preseason and get it on," Harbaugh seems to be saying.

That's so different from the poor Chiefs who desperately left their starting quarterback — Smith — in for the entire first half. And Smith wasn't exactly red hot. And the Chiefs left their starting defense in there forever.

Crummy teams will do that. We notice.

Is there a subtext for the 49ers that complicates the obvious and makes everything more interesting? You bet there is.

The Niners have two problems, the way we see it. And these problems lead to special handling on the part of Harbaugh — a tough guy resorting to the soft treatment. Is Frederick P. Soft on the premises?

The First Problem: If Kaepernick gets hurt in an exhibition game, or if Kaepernick gets hurt anytime this season, the 49ers may as well wave the white flag, cry uncle, go on vacation in Cabo.

The drop-off from Kaepernick to the other three guys is like going from top to bottom in the flash of an eye on the Drop Tower at California's Great America, the neighbor to the Niners' spanking new stadium. We have noticed.

This is not to dump on the three backups. No dumpage intended. It's just that Scott Tolzien may not make the team — lord knows he's had his chances. Colt McCoy is what you call "just a guy." And B.J. Daniels is wildly talented, reminds us of Russell Wilson in rainy Seattle, but he is new and raw and isn't ready.

The 49ers live and die with Colin Kaepernick. This living and dying with the starting quarterback is the league norm, makes the 49ers just like the Broncos, Packers, Patriots and others. So far, Harbaugh has elected to live.

The Second Problem: Until recently, the 49ers have been remarkably free of injuries, remarkably lucky. But the wheel always turns.

Michael Crabtree is gone for a long time. So is Chris Culliver. Justin Smith got hurt badly last season and, for the first time, appears vulnerable. Kendall Hunter and Kyle Williams are returning from serious injuries.

Tight end Vance McDonald, a second-round draft pick, played most of the first exhibition game. The coaches wanted to see what he could do. He ran over people, knocked into people. And got hurt. After that he didn't practice. He didn't play in the second game. Didn't suit up.

Football is violent, and Harbaugh is saying, without actually saying it, he can't afford another injury, not in these silly games. His goal is simple — make it through another preseason game healthy, as healthy as possible. Forget practicing at game speed. This is a veteran team, a Super Bowl team, prudence and caution take precedence.

We understand his position, the position he's taken so far. We also understand preseason has a function like spring training and, although the games don't matter, what happens in the games — the learning process even for veterans — does matter.

We notice Harbaugh is on the horns of a dilemma. If he plays his starters, he risks injuring them. If he does not play them, he risks them not being ready for the Packers on Sept. 8.

Harbaugh never had a choice between taking a risk or not taking a risk. His choice was which risk to take, only that. So far he has taken the risk of caution and prudence over practice and preparation.

We are in no position to say he's right or wrong. That's what the season is about.

For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at cohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at lowell.cohn@pressdemocrat.com.