SANTA CLARA -- When is the 49ers "starting quarterback" not the guy who is actually starting at quarterback?

It's when Jim Harbaugh has some feelings to soothe and some symbolic gestures to make before an official QB change.

It's when everybody knows that Harbaugh prefers Colin Kaepernick, but when Harbaugh starts to realize he handled the jump from Alex Smith a bit coldly and clunkily.

It's when the truth comes out only in reverse -- what's said is wrong, what's unsaid is right.

On Monday, Harbaugh volunteered that "Alex Smith is our starting quarterback," only a day after Kaepernick started over a healthy Smith and helped beat New Orleans.

But really, Harbaugh was trying to pull off a diplomatic do-over after his blunt QB switch last week.

My guess: Harbaugh realizes he made Smith a sympathetic figure across the league and that the 49ers probably should seek a smoother permanent transition to Kaepernick.

Fact: If he hadn't suffered a concussion a few weeks ago, Smith probably still would be the unchallenged starter of a playoff-bound team.

Fact: Smith was Harbaugh's guy from the first days on the job in 2011, a consistent winner for him, and (more symbolism!) Harbaugh's caddie at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am last February.

Fact: Smith has done everything Harbaugh ever asked of him.


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So that's why Harbaugh finally went out of his way Monday to say that Smith is having a good year and has done nothing to lose the job.

And that's why those words will almost surely be rendered meaningless Wednesday, when Harbaugh likely will name Kaepernick as the starter -- for Sunday in St. Louis and possibly beyond.

Because even when Harbaugh was figuratively placing Smith in the No. 1 slot, he sure wasn't ready to bump Kaepernick down.

"Colin Kaepernick, you can't categorize him as a backup quarterback, because he's started games and played very well in those games," 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."

Significantly, past the semantic "starter/backup" conversation, Harbaugh praised Kaepernick for succeeding in the Superdome environment.

The QB issue, in my mind, is all pointed to the playoffs -- who can get the 49ers offense moving in the toughest situations, against the best defenses?

And Kaepernick devoured the Bears defense in his first start and followed that up by doing well in the Superdome in start No. 2.

"First and foremost, just great in terms of his personal development and for our team to play in a really hostile environment in New Orleans," Harbaugh said of Kaepernick.

"It was loud-loud there, against a team that was fighting for their playoff lives, just like we're fighting for our playoff lives, and both teams just poured their guts out in that football game, a real road playoff atmosphere."

But Harbaugh still has to deal with the public fallout of demoting Smith, a nice guy in the middle of his best season.

More than anything, Harbaugh sounded peeved about the commentary surrounding this move, from Steve Young and Trent Dilfer on ESPN to Troy Aikman's game analysis for Fox on Sunday.

Of course, this has all been caused by Harbaugh's actions, his determination to keep this a poorly kept secret, and his decision to move Kaepernick ahead of Smith.

Kaepernick's play has justified almost everything, but clearly Harbaugh senses that Smith's situation is not ideal.

"He's a class act all the way -- team player, that's why he has been voted captain by our players," Harbaugh said of Smith.

In particular, Aikman said that, in the same position, he might not have been as gracious and quiet as Smith has been.

After the game, Smith told reporters that he believes he still should be the QB. Could he say more? Will he want to?

Harbaugh is banking that the answer to all of those questions is "no," but he can't be sure about that.

Which explains why he went to great lengths Monday to talk about sending a good message for sportsmanship and "it's about the team and all of us working together" no matter who starts.

"That's not what our two guys are about," Harbaugh said of any potential QB flare-up. "They're great team guys, great example guys, and we need them both."

But, barring injury or some wacky two-QB system, the 49ers can play only one of them. It will be Kaepernick, and it should be Kaepernick, based on his last two games.

Everything is semantics and symbolism, all due to expire Wednesday.

Read Tim Kawakami's Talking Points blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/kawakami. Contact him at tkawakami@mercurynews.com.