One year ago tomorrow, the San Francisco 49ers landed in New Orleans for their Super Bowl matchup against the Baltimore Ravens while their quarterback Colin Kaepernick was hailed as the wunderkind.
He was only 25 in only his 10th NFL start and The Big Easy welcomed him with building-high murals and Mardi Gras-level glitz. The question, Is he ready for this? was irrelevant. Coach Jim Harbaugh had made his call, the scary-explosive Kaepernick over the experienced-but-careful Alex Smith. The decision resulted in the 49ers first Super Bowl appearance in 18 years.
The 49ers lost that game, as the planet watched, when Kaepernick looked to his right and missed Michael Crabtree in the end zone. A year later in last weeks NFC Championship Game, Kaepernick looked to his right and missed Crabtree in the end zone. Bookend misery for the 49er Faithful.
Between those punch-in-the-gut moments, what have we learned about Kaepernick, the pride of Turlock? How much has he grown after his first full season in charge? Is there any reason to believe hes not the long-term answer to deliver the 49ers sixth Lombardi Trophy? What will be the talking points on Jan. 26, 2015?
Lets start here: In only 11/2 seasons as a starter, Kaepernick has carried his team to a Super Bowl and two NFC finals. Against Atlanta in the 2013 NFC title game, he rallied the 49ers from a 17-0 deficit to victory. If he continues at this pace and wills his team to the biggest win, he can reserve a spot for his plaque at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
My hunch is that Kaepernick, late-game troubles and all, looks bona fide golden against the Terrelle Pryors, Blaine Gabberts, Matt Staffords and Brandon Weedens who inhabit the NFL. The 49ers must pay the man soon, and they most certainly will. Should the front office deposit their collective brains in some cement-fill at Levis Stadium and elect not to sign him, Kaepernick will find new employment for a thankful franchise in about a half-second.
And the 49ers and all those Kaepernick critics can return to the glory days with Tim Rattay, Troy Smith and Shaun Hill.
Kaepernick greeted his nouveau fame in 2013 with garish awards show appearances, fundraisers for needy children, youth football camps and endorsement-pushing for everything from Jaguar to McDonalds to Beats by Dre to Electronic Arts to Madden25 to MusclePharm. To certify his arrival on the stage, he even Kaepernicked in the White House with Michelle Obama.
But to conflate his off-the-field persona with alleged lack of preparation is a fools charge. Say what you will about Kaepernick and his name was being tossed against all walls last week his work ethic is not in question. Ask any coach or teammate.
On the field, Kaepernick walked into the season as a target. Defensive coordinators devised schemes that limited the read-option, the plays that featured his long strides eating up yards in record-setting numbers. Predictably, the NFL caught up to the new kid on the block.
He responded with a 412-yard three-touchdown passing performance to beat Green Bay in the opener, then descended into a mild funk. Carolina, Seattle and Indianapolis solved a San Francisco offense minus the injured Crabtree and, at times, Vernon Davis. ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer labeled Kaepernick a one-read quarterback, meaning he lacked the experience to see his receivers downfield. If his primary receiver was covered, he would panic.
The truth lay somewhere in the middle, of course. He hesitated early in the season due to major issues: erratic and perhaps overrated offensive line, decreased production by running back Frank Gore and the absence of Crabtree until December. When those problems were corrected, Kaepernick and the 49ers soared.
They won eight straight, including back-to-back road playoff victories against Green Bay and Carolina. Against the Seahawks, they nearly became the first team in NFL history to annex two straight conference-title road victories to reach the Super Bowl.
What will haunt the 49ers for years to come, however, were Kaepernicks sack-fumble and two interceptions in the final 11 minutes at Seattle. It is a bell that cant be unrung. If your last three possessions result in turnovers, your season is done.
The play dissected the most is Kaepernicks final pass, the 1st-and-10 from the Seattle 18 yard line in the final seconds. From here, the read was good but the decision was not.
Any quarterback, with three receivers aligned to the left and one to the right, leans toward the single-covered man (Crabtree). Problem was, his defender was 6-foot-3 Richard Sherman, arguably the leagues best corner.
Former 49er quarterback Jeff Garcia thought a safe pass to Davis, available to Kaepernicks left, was the prudent option. Coach Jim Harbaugh would have taken his second timeout with around 22 seconds left. The 49ers would have had no less than two plays, and maybe as many as four, to find the end zone from about the 10.
Sounds enticing, right?
From here on, be extra careful with your opinions because theyre clouded by what NFL Films Greg Cosell calls access to the result. Its better to relive the play in real time and understand Kaepernicks bottom-line choice: He took a calculated risk.
His pass missed the mark by inches and allowed Shermans remarkable lunging deflection to hustling linebacker Malcolm Smith. Regardless, at some point in that final series, Kaepernick was forced to fit the ball in a dangerous place for the 49ers to win. He chose 1st-and-10 to Crabtree against Sherman.
Kaepernicks maturation will depend on how he approaches these win-or-lose moments. Hell no doubt be armed with more experience and wisdom when titles again are there to be claimed, but will he eventually deliver a la Joe Montana and Steve Young?
Thats known only to the football gods. Heres what we do know: In both last years Super Bowl and last weeks events at CenturyLink Field, the 49ers would not have been close to winning without him. Kaepernick is a lightning rod, for better or worse, because he provides something the 49ers havent felt in many years.