SAN FRANCISCO — Colin Kaepernick tiptoes ever so gingerly into the 2013 season.
There were no glossy read-options, no long-striding rips into the secondary, no exotic ad-libs Sunday night. Even in Game 3, the so-called final dress rehearsal for most NFL regulars, Kaepernick was reduced to only three series during the 49ers' 34-14 win over Minnesota.
Contrast that to the Vikings' Christian Ponder operating deep into the third quarter, or Peyton Manning's 35 passes Saturday night for Denver. Kaepernick, by comparison, has played for an eye-blink five series over three games.
"I think when you get out there and you find your rhythm, that's how you want to play," he summarized.
Still, the big picture is hard to miss. The 49ers are treating him like Waterford crystal carefully. Very carefully.
Coach Jim Harbaugh was encouraged enough by Colt McCoy's performance against the Vikings to declare him the backup. McCoy was given a generous chance, a two-quarter look-see, and dodged an early interception to lead the second-team offense to a touchdown.
"He's progressed and gotten better every week," Harbaugh said. "I think he was plus-plus tonight."
Harbaugh's optimism pales, however, against the reality.
Last year, Alex Smith's injury meant an open door for Kaepernick, and we know how and where that ended (in the Super Bowl). Today, the 49ers don't own such a Plan B luxury. If Kaepernick falls, the 49ers may fall with him.
General Manager Trent Baalke and Harbaugh understand the stakes. Every defensive coordinator in the NFL spent the entire offseason devising schemes against the read-option, the NFL trendy offense du jour. The read-option, Kaepernick's forte, works for now because defenses haven't yet accounted for the quarterback as a featured runner.
Alarm bells rung throughout the league when Kaepernick strafed Green Bay for a playoff-record 181 yards last season. Atlanta and Super Bowl opponent Baltimore responded by forcing the ball out of Kaepernick's hands.
Week 1, two weeks away, will reveal how defenses cope with their little math problem. Most experts, among them John Madden, think they'll respond by hitting the quarterback whether or not he has the ball. It promises to get physical, and perhaps a little nasty, when Kaepernick performs his shell game with Frank Gore.
Which is why Kaepernick was, and is, handle-with-care.
It's almost a back-to-the-future thing with him. As a Pitman High senior, Kaepernick was advised by coaches not to run with the ball because, 1. He had a great tailback in Anthony Harding, 2. He was skinny and supposedly vulnerable to punishment, and 3. There was no suitable backup QB behind him. Sound familiar?
Another thing: Kaepernick's "It" factor also makes him an NFL target. Here's a quarterback, after only 10 career starts, appearing on the cover of GQ and winning ESPY awards.
Imagine how the words last week from ESPN's Ron Jaworski played out in other locker rooms. "(Kaepernick) could be one of the greatest quarterbacks ever," he predicted.
As spectacular as Kaepernick's breakout was last year, he's far from a finished product. As he's admitted, he's yet to complete a full season.
And if there was a honeymoon for Kaepernick, the sub-turned-phenom, it's over.
That said, Kaepernick at least teased the Candlestick Park Faithful with a glimpse of the 2012 magic. After a slow start, he connected on his final six passes and guided his team 84 yards in 11 plays. The touchdown pass was vintage Kaepernick a roll to his right before he led promising rookie Quinton Patton streaking along the end line.
"He (Patton) is a great player. He is someone who just knows football," Kaepernick said. "He knows how to make plays. I am looking forward to seeing what he can do for us."
If the 49ers are sweating over Kaepernick's future health, they're not worried about him on the field. He earned more than a little street-cred last January. That doesn't keep him from grading himself on a steep curve.
"It wasn't perfect to start," he said. "Other than that ...we started getting in our groove."
Harbaugh said Kaepernick will see action in next week's preseason finale against San Diego. If so, it's an unconventional strategy. Starting QBs usually are hands-off the week before the games count. Then again, Kaepernick is not a conventional talent.
"I'm good for playing every week," he maintained.
Bet he won't be out there for long next week.
Bee staff writer Ron Agostini can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2302. Follow Ron via Twitter, @modbeesports