At 2:25 p.m. on Saturday afternoon, Alex Smith had not been cleared to play Monday night against the Chicago Bears. I know this for a fact. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman conducted a news conference and said Smith had not been cleared.

Smith wore a black jersey during Saturday's practice. Although the black jersey bears a feeling of doom, the black is merely symbolic. It means Smith's teammates can't whack him during drills, but players never can whack a quarterback in practice. So, the black jersey is redundant. While it may not be a negative symbol, neither is it positive. It indicates, "Injured, handle with care." And it raises the question: Will Smith be ready to start Monday night?

FYI, Colin Kaepernick, the backup QB, wore a flaming red jersey, the full-speed-ahead, let's-get-it-on jersey.

Shortly after Roman left the interview tent, the 49ers sent out an email declaring Smith "questionable," which I take as 50-50, although I believe he will play. More on that in a moment. Leading up to the game, Kaepernick has gotten more practice reps than he usually does and Smith has gotten fewer. Roman admitted this. He said Smith got enough reps if he gets cleared to play. Smith still needs to pass neurological protocols, which he had not passed as I write this column. And he needs to go through a final "contact" drill to determine his game-readiness.

Joe Staley, who's undergone the concussion protocol, explained that the contact phase of the tests can happen up until game time.

Cohn: "What's a contact test?"

Staley: "For me, I just basically had to bang against another person with my helmet. Quarterbacks would probably be different. Their job doesn't consist of banging helmets with someone."

Cohn: "How long did your contact test last?"

Staley: "A minute, a few minutes."

Which means, if and when Smith passes all the doctor tests, someone will take him aside and smack his helmet or something like that, and he'll trot into the huddle to do business.

This is not a will-he-or-will-he-not-play column. We will know the answer to that conundrum shortly. This column analyzes both possibilities — Smith plays or doesn't play — and what the implications are for him and his career.

Make no mistake. There are big implications and, although the team won't admit it and Smith certainly won't admit it, he could be at the crossroads, at a serious juncture of his up-and-down, highly controversial life with the 49ers.

The best scenario for Smith is obvious. He plays and he murders the Bears and he reminds everyone of Joe Montana, and no one doubts him ever again. If he does that, I, for one, will give him a mondo atta boy.

There are other possibilities, not as joyful, and this is where the stakes rise for Smith.


Smith does not play. This is the most dangerous scenario from his point of view. It gives Kaepernick the chance to start and defeat an elite defense, a defense that would give Smith enormous trouble.

If Kaepernick has a great game — admittedly a hypothetical assumption — the transition from Smith to him could happen in the twinkling of an eye. Jim Harbaugh could say Smith still is woozy and the team doesn't want to risk further injury, or Harbaugh could say Kaepernick did well and the team doesn't want to disrupt a winning chemistry, and Harbaugh could say Alex Smith is a team player and wholeheartedly applauds the change at quarterback.

Bad Scenario No. 1 is dangerous for Smith because Kaepernick eventually will be the superior quarterback, and he's approaching the threshold right now.

Why is Kaepernick better?

Smith needs assurance a receiver is open before he throws the ball. Kaepernick throws to where a receiver will be — all superior quarterbacks do this. Kaepernick plays with faith, and Smith lacks faith. Kaepernick will extend a broken play by running, or by running around and then throwing. Smith is not a play extender. He is a play ender. He will take a sack rather than take a risk. Kaepernick has a distinctly vertical game. He has force on his passes — think Aaron Rodgers' force — and Smith doesn't. You can hear Kaepernick's passes.

Eventually, the 49ers will score more points when Kaepernick is the quarterback. That could be soon.


Smith gets the start on Monday and plays poorly. If that happens, you have a full-on quarterback controversy. Smith was wretched against the Giants, and the Bears have an even scarier defense than the Giants. If the Niners lose, Smith will have been defeated by Jason Campbell, the Bears' backup QB. That will not look good on Smith's resume.

It's not like Smith has prepped for this game by demolishing the league. According to my calculation, he already has pitched three stinkers in the 49ers' nine games — that's 33 percent stinkers: His stinkers were — 13 points against the Vikings, a loss; three against the Giants, a loss; 13 against the Seahawks, a win, thanks to the defense.

If Smith goes all stinker against the Bears, people will start asking serious questions about Kaepernick. One of those people could be Harbaugh. And that means Smith better hope for the doctors' clearance and a good contact test, and then he must play as if his career depends on it.

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.