For four weeks, San Francisco has been a divided city. Alex Smith, many said, possessed the steady hand and playoff experience to lead the 49ers to a championship. Colin Kaepernick, others countered, showcased the swift feet and slingshot arm to unleash the full capacity of Jim Harbaugh's offense against the team's powerful NFC rivals in January.
The debate was not as heated in Las Vegas, where the stakes are even higher than football supremacy, where crucial coaching decisions mean the difference between rounds of Patrón at XS Nightclub or a somber bus trip home contemplating how to explain an emptied college fund.
In Vegas, the wiseguys wanted their money in the hands of the tattooed rookie from Turlock.
After Kaepernick's success against the Chicago Bears in Week 11, Harbaugh was hesitant to immediately name a starting quarterback for the team's next contest, a road game against the red-hot New Orleans Saints. The point spread opened as an even line, a pick 'em in which neither team was favored. Hours before Sunday's kickoff, Harbaugh announced that Kaepernick would start.
The decision appeared to shift gamblers' minds. By game time, late money flowed in for the 49ers, as evidenced by the betting line movement — the point spread at most casinos closed with San Francisco favored to win by 1.5 points.
"A lot of people were salivating at the prospect of Kaepernick starting," says Wayne Root, a sports gambling expert for Winning Edge, which counsels clients on where to place their bets. "Alex Smith is someone that wins you the game 14-13. He's not gonna light up the scoreboard."
In sports gambling, professional oddsmakers adjust point spreads in a way that gives bookies and casinos the best chance at profiting. When heavy money comes in for one team, the oddsmakers tilt the spread toward that team, in hopes of inducing more bets for the opponent, to hedge the house's risk.
In Week 13, the betting line opened with the Niners as 9-point favorites against the St. Louis Rams, a team that fought San Francisco to a tie in Smith's last start. But, once again, Harbaugh bided his time in naming a starter. The uncertainly appeared to scare some gamblers off the 49ers bandwagon.
"The line quickly dropped to 7.5," says Chad Fox, an NFL handicapper at PredictEm.com.
On Wednesday of that week, Harbaugh gave Kaepernick the nod, and by Sunday the spread had moved up to 8 points.
"The public was starting to feel Kaepernick Fever," says Fox.
The 49ers eventually lost that game, and the bettors with their money on the team and the new quarterback lost their money. In Vegas, Kaepernick Fever may have broken.