Opinion

Ron Agostini: Kaepernick returns to his nemesis city

ragostini@modbee.comJanuary 18, 2014 

Colin Kaepernick doesn’t do failure easily.

Frankly, he’s not good at it. Every coach who’s guided him, from his youth in Turlock through Jim Harbaugh with the San Francisco 49ers, quickly understood what Kaepernick’s about.

Winning. Success. Out-competing the other guy.

Those qualities, combined with Kaepernick’s special physical skills, make him one of the most appealing athletes on the American sports scene. He carried his team into the Super Bowl last season in only his 10th career start. In the dog-eat-dog NFL, that’s downright unreal.

Which brings us to today’s NFC Championship game in Seattle, the 49ers’ final barrier toward a return trip to the Big One. There’s really no need to downplay it – the game is Kaepernick’s biggest challenge to date.

OK, I already can hear your argument: So last year’s Super Bowl wasn’t important enough for you and your shriveling attention span? Wasn’t Kaepernick already front and center for the game that defines Western civilization? Did you go AWOL that day?

Granted, I was there – I did survive some fun in the French Quarter the night before – and chronicled the whole thing for posterity. And Kaepernick, though he and his team fell 5 yards short of the most dramatic comeback in Super Bowl history, didn’t fail that day. He lifted his team through a 28-6 deficit and a power outage. He was the reason the 49ers created all that excitement in New Orleans.

Here’s why today’s game trumps the Super Bowl on Kaepernick’s career ledger. He returns to arguably the only place on Earth, CenturyLink Field, where he’s failed on a massive scale.

It’s impossible to spin the ugliness from 42-13 and 29-3, the twin 49er flameouts in their last two trips to Seattle, Harbaugh’s two worst losses as 49er coach. The latter, absorbed in September when everyone on both sides knew the consequences, is why Kaepernick and Co. slog back to that architecturally-induced noise machine.

In those two games, Kaepernick threw for one touchdown and four interceptions. His passer rating was 20.1. Worse, he appeared to be unnerved and his anxiety affected his teammates. They collapsed, crushed by the Seahawks and the decibels on which they rely.

I doubt if Kaepernick ever has washed out on an athletic field to that degree. His response, however, adds to this game’s importance. He must rise above the ghosts and deliver what his team needs.

If you’ve followed his career at all, you know this is the kind of challenge Kaepernick loves. He’s fueled by slights both real and perceived, from the drivel on Twitter to nitpicking TV talking heads.

Those 2011 draft-day numbers – his No. 36 selection, 35 below Carolina QB Cam Newton – were stamped on his brain before last week’s win. They formed the roots of Kaepernick’s much-discussed Superman celebration. He uses that stuff as more wood thrown onto his fire. He simmers on the surface. If you look close enough, you might even see that chip on his shoulder.

Professional athletes, at least the good ones, are hot-wired to bust down barriers stacked in front of them. For Kaepernick, those barriers aren’t more daunting than at the Seahawks’ home.

His load will be heavier than his counterpart, Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson, who will hand off to Marshawn Lynch as a conduit to his play-action and scrambling.

The 49ers own their own reliable running back in Frank Gore, but their test is more complex. They run headlong into the best secondary in pro football, a clingy, vocal and aggressive bunch that has confounded Kaepernick. He’s yet to rush for a touchdown against Seattle.

Kaepernick must fit his passes into tiny places, away from defenders like Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor. Tight end Vernon Davis and receivers Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree will have no other choice but to contort their bodies to clutch passes over their heads and near their feet while they wear the Seattle defense like a second skin.

This is not groundbreaking strategy. The 49ers recognized their task against the Seahawks long ago. But in their last two trips to Seattle, Kaepernick’s tosses into traffic have produced some of the nastiest carom-job interceptions he’s seen as a pro. Those sudden changes melted his team’s confidence.

Wiggle room? There will be none. He’ll be confronted by the same exam against the same team that delights in tormenting him. He and his receivers must be precise and on the same page, or Seattle will write its own book.

The 49ers’ victory against Seattle in December demonstrated personal growth in Kaepernick. He’s been the anchor of the team’s eight-game winning streak, including the playoff victories in the Arctic freeze of Green Bay and the East Coast cool of Charlotte. His 3-0 record in road playoff games towers over the combined 1-7 by Joe Montana and Steve Young.

But can he slay “Beast Mode” and the other monsters from the Northwest? Can he succeed where he’s failed so dismally?

Bee staff writer Ron Agostini can be reached at ragostini@modbee.com or (209) 578-2302. Follow him on Twitter @ModBeeSports.

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