The 49ers were one of football’s surprise teams last year with quarterback Alex Smith leading San Francisco to within a win of a Super Bowl berth.
Because of that success, the NFC West-leading 49ers’ eight wins heading into Sunday’s game against the visiting Dolphins isn’t much of a shock.
The guy leading the 49ers these days, however, is a little surprising.
Smith hasn’t played since sustaining a concussion in a tie with St. Louis on Nov. 11, and Colin Kaepernick has taken over behind center.
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Kaepernick, 25, won his first two starts for the 49ers. On Sunday, however, San Francisco was upset 16-13 by the Rams after Kaepernick botched a pitch attempt that helped St. Louis tie the score en route to an overtime win.
Coach Jim Harbaugh has not committed to Kaepernick as his starter for the rest of the season, but Kaepernick will go against the Dolphins.
How long Kaepernick keeps the gig seems to be how he continues to perform.
“He’s done a fine job,’’ Harbaugh said, “and deserves our faith and trust. He’s earned that. And that’s our decision.’’
Although Smith has his supporters in the 49ers room, Kaepernick said his relationship with Smith hasn’t changed despite the change in fortune for both.
“We’re just trying to do what’s best for this team,’’ Kaepernick said. “That is how we’re going about it. Things are the same. “... We’ve always tried to help each other out and make each other better.’’
A second-round pick out of Nevada in 2011, Kaepernick didn’t play much as a rookie but has looked sharp at times when given the opportunity to play this season.
Smith passed for 3,144 yards and 17 touchdowns in leading the 49ers to the NFC title game last season. for three touchdowns in San Francisco’s playoff win against New Orleans and two more in the NFC title game the Niners lost 20-17 to the eventual Super Bowl champion Giants.
Then he watched his team chase free agent Peyton Manning in the offseason. Smith responded by visiting with the Dolphins — Miami had not drafted Ryan Tannehill yet — before going back to the Niners and signing a new contract.
Kaepernick has a strong arm and can do damage with his legs. In nine games this season, Smith carried the ball 29 times for 134 yards. Kaepernick, however, has 40 rushes for 298 yards and four touchdowns — one more than he has thrown for.
The Dolphins’ defense knows it’s in for a challenge Sunday.
San Francisco is averaging 363 yards a game (11th in the NFL) with a good chunk of that coming on the ground.
“They are going to run the ball,’’ Miami linebacker Kevin Burnett said. “... They line up those big boys and basically say ‘stop us.’ There are no tricks, no counters the other way. They run the ball at you and see if you can stop it.’’
Although the 49ers are averaging just 201 passing yards (below the Dolphins at 25th), San Francisco is picking up an average of 162 rushing yards — second in the league.
Former Coral Gables High and UM star Frank Gore is doing most of the damage on the ground for the 49ers, going for 972 yards with six touchdowns to rank in the top 10 in both categories.
Gore was held to a season-low 58 yards in last weekend’s loss, so Miami knows it will be getting a motivated back Sunday.
"He’s a hard worker and is a workhorse who comes to play every Sunday,’’ said Dolphins defensive end Jared Odrick, who has worked out with Gore in South Florida during the past two offseasons.
Said Kaepernick: “Frank is a great running back. He makes runs most running backs can’t make. It’s amazing, actually.’’