SANTA CLARA, Calif. Jim Harbaugh has watched each of his two quarterbacks lead the San Francisco 49ers to big wins in hostile, road environments Alex Smith in the season opener at Green Bay's Lambeau Field back in September among others, and Colin Kaepernick on Sunday at the New Orleans Superdome.
Which one gets the ball on Sunday when the 49ers travel to St. Louis? Harbaugh is still mum on that, though he did say Monday he will formally announce his starting quarterback by mid-week so the players don't have to face constant questions about what they know about the situation.
CBSSports.com senior NFL columnist Clark Judge says it may not matter who is under center because the 49ers success is not predicated on the quarterback.
"I'm not sure it makes a difference who quarterbacks the 49ers. Their defense won't let whoever starts at the position fail," Clark writes. "Yes, Kaepernick played well against a hot New Orleans team in a hostile environment, but he didn't beat the Saints; the 49ers' defense did. It not only stuffed Brees and the Saints on 11 of 14 possessions; it was responsible for nearly half the 49ers' points in San Francisco's first-even regular-season defeat of Brees."
Kaepernick said he was told late Saturday in a team meeting ahead of Sunday's start against the Saints.
Then, on Monday, Harbaugh offered this for thought: Yes, he's keeping everybody guessing again. Sort of.
"Alex Smith is our starting quarterback. He has not done anything to lose that job," Harbaugh said. "In fact, he's playing at a very high level. Also, Colin Kaepernick, you can't categorize him as a backup quarterback, because he's started games and played very well in those games."
Clearly, Harbaugh is growing tired of all the talk about his quarterback situation, even if much of the drama is of his own creation and he refuses to categorize it as a "controversy" with two capable guys in the mix each week. He said again Monday that anything is possible this week, even using both quarterbacks in the game.
"The guys will be hammered," Harbaugh said. "You go to Colin, you go to Alex, `Should you be the starter?' He's got no good answer for you. He says, `Yes, I should be the starter' we're talking either one and you look like you're just building up yourself. If you say no, then they hammer you because you don't think you should be the starter. Then the people, so-called subject matter experts, who talk about, "You should be making a fuss about it or a stink about it, you shouldn't be that accommodating," it sends a completely wrong message, to me, for young athletes out there, or high school quarterbacks, where their coach is trying to tell them it's about the team and all of us working together. So that one gets me upset. That's not what our two guys are about."
The NFC West-leading Niners (8-2-1) now own the second-best record in the NFC behind Atlanta as they head to face the Rams in a game that will mean plenty for both teams after their 24-24 tie Nov. 11.
In recent weeks, Harbaugh has vowed to go with the "hot hand" as his quarterback. Now, he has two guys who fit that mold, yet Kaepernick has won back-to-back games in his first two NFL starts the first last Monday night against the Bears before Smith was medically cleared from his concussion.
For now, Harbaugh seems to be playing both sides. He wouldn't say when asked whether he has already made a decision for Sunday.
"I think it starts with this week, this game, what gives our team the best chance to win this game, like it would at any position," Harbaugh said. "So in a unique situation, you have two quarterbacks that are playing at a very high level. One's your captain, your starting quarterback. The other has played great football the last three football games."
Smith, the 2005 No. 1 overall draft pick, hardly looked happy on the sideline Sunday. Last week, he said the 49ers have a good problem with him and Kaepernick able to lead the team to victory, and he plans to remain positive regarding what's best for the 49ers.
"He's a class act all the way -team player, that's why he has been voted captain by our players," Harbaugh said. "They're great team guys, they're great example guys. We need them both. Both have played extremely well."
In his lone two NFL starts last week, Kaepernick completed 48 of 74 passes for 680 yards and three touchdowns with one interception and was sacked six times. He has a 102.3 passer rating.
"He's a good athlete and I know that we respected him. You don't really know until you get on him for real," Saints defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said Monday. "I tip my hat to him. We had some people on him who could have finished him and didn't and that's because he's a pretty good athlete and that makes it tough. He's going to make a lot of people miss."
Smith, meanwhile, has completed 26 of his last 28 passes and sports a 104.1 passer rating with 13 touchdowns.
While so much attention is on the team's quarterback situation, the 49ers' opportunistic defense produced a pair of pick-sixes by Ahmad Brooks and Donte Whitner and sacked record-setting Saints quarterback Drew Brees five times Sunday.
Harbaugh will be looking for the same kind of performances Sunday against the Rams. Both teams missed field goals in overtime and left Candlestick Park feeling as if they let the game slip away. It was the NFL's first tie in four years.
Not that Harbaugh is looking back at that frustrating finish.
"Really have a whole new light on unfinished business. I think all this is new business," he said. "The new business is this game, this most important game because it's our next game. It's just that hard focus on that. It's not about unfinished business, it's about new business. New business is getting prepared to travel well, prepare to practice well and prepare to go there and do what it takes to be victorious."