SAN FRANCISCO – Surprise! There's another quarterback competition for the San Francisco 49ers.
Rookie Colin Kaepernick will get his shot to challenge incumbent Alex Smith for the Niners' starting job — though Smith has been the strong favorite all along and probably still is. Smith has taken all the reps with the first team when he has been on the practice field, too.
While Jim Harbaugh still considers it Smith's spot to lose, the first-year coach and former NFL QB said Saturday nobody has earned the position in training camp thus far. He hasn't said when he will name a starter.
"We're evaluating it daily and, really, it's a mindset of letting the guys compete for it," Harbaugh said during a conference call on the heels of Friday's 24-3 loss at New Orleans in the 49ers' exhibition opener and his NFL coaching debut. "There hasn't been an opportunity so far to be a clear-cut, definitive winner in the quarterback competition. We just forge ahead."
In addition, San Francisco will consider adding an experienced veteran backup quarterback to the mix.
"That's a possibility," Harbaugh said, noting a decision would be based "on the right person available."
Kaepernick, a second-round draft pick out of Nevada, completed 9 of 19 passes for 117 yards and threw two interceptions against the Saints. He played most of the game. The 2005 No. 1 overall pick out of Utah, Smith was 2-for-7 for 10 yards.
San Francisco, determined to end a string of eight straight years without a winning season or playoff berth, allowed six first-half sacks and watched a familiar scene of Smith getting little protection and taking regular hits. The Niners went their initial four series without a first down and managed only David Akers' 59-yard field goal against the blitzing New Orleans attack.
"Certainly it wasn't clean. It was difficult," Harbaugh said. "We struggled offensively. It is worrisome and you don't like to see your quarterback hit like that."
The 49ers traded up on draft day in April to acquire the mobile, playmaking Kaepernick. Still, Harbaugh said several days later that Smith had the head start.
"If I'm a betting man, I'm betting on Alex," he said.
Smith hadn't even signed at that point — though Harbaugh was confident enough there would be a deal that he handed over his playbook to Smith in the midst of the NFL lockout. Then Smith led his teammates through workouts and study sessions deemed "Camp Alex" this summer at San Jose State.
Kaepernick, 6-foot-5 with a strong arm, passed for 3,022 yards and 21 touchdowns last season at Nevada.
Harbaugh seems in no hurry to name a starter. The 49ers have a lot to do before they open the season Sept. 11 at home against the NFC West rival Seattle Seahawks.
"I know as a quarterback when you're competing for a starting job, you like to make it clear-cut," Harbaugh said. "So far, it hasn't had a chance to be clear-cut yet. So we'll continue to practice. I don't want those guys worried about it. I want them practicing and working and not worrying, and it will unfold."
Smith threw for 2,370 yards and 14 touchdowns in 11 games and 10 starts last season, but he also threw 10 interceptions and was sacked 25 times. The 49ers finished 6-10 after a surprising 0-5 start and haven't had a winning season or reached the playoffs since 2002.
For the 27-year-old Smith, having his position in limbo is hardly anything new.
"This is absolutely wide open," he said after his first practice Aug. 4. "It's a new coaching staff. They're evaluating all of us."
He took over the starting job midway through 2009 and was entrenched as the starter heading into 2010. After separating his non-throwing left shoulder Oct. 24 at Carolina, former coach Mike Singletary turned to 2006 Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith for the next five games — even after Alex Smith was healthy again. Troy Smith went 3-2 as a starter, then it was Alex Smith's turn again for two games, including a commanding win over eventual West champion Seattle.
After a flop at San Diego, Singletary turned back to Troy Smith for a must-win game with the Rams on Dec. 26. That 25-17 loss cost the coach his job with one week to go. Jim Tomsula, serving a single-game stint as interim head coach, went with Alex Smith for a win against Arizona in the season finale.
Smith practiced for the first time seven days after Kaepernick took the field — as per the new labor rules for free agents. Smith is still catching up.
"It just wasn't good. I didn't feel that great about it," he said after Friday's loss. "We have to learn from this. We have to get better. We knew it was going to be tough, potentially it was going to be a little sloppy, but some things have to get fixed and we will. That's what these games are for."