SANTA CLARA – The NFL asks its quarterbacks to do basically one thing above the rest: Win the game.
If you grab an NFL sage by the lapel and ask him to clarify, he’d likely add, “Win the game late.”
Turlock’s Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, had not done that in 2014 before Sunday. He had not led his team to a fourth-quarter touchdown all season, much less with his team trailing, the seconds ticking and 49er Nation hyperventilating.
That void on the season résumé spurred all the talk about Kaepernick regressing, Kaepernick not feeling the pass rush, Kaepernick failing to pick up secondary receivers and, to extend the point, Kaepernick not picking up his laundry. The third-year starting quarterback should be further along, the critique goes.
Well, Kaepernick – while all systems failed around him and with the 49ers one misfire away from another hide-your-eyes loss – nailed Priority 1 on his job description Sunday. He guided his team 75 yards for the touchdown and an important 17-13 victory over the Washington Redskins, and all surrounding vagaries fade to irrelevance.
“Now was a good time to have it,” Kaepernick said.
The 49ers, for better or worse, are heaping more responsibilities on Kaepernick’s shoulders. In other words, the training wheels have been removed. He’s a football adult now.
Wide receiver Anquan Boldin, a 12-year NFL veteran who’s felt and seen about everything the league can dish out, underlined Kaepernick’s expanding role. Boldin tapped the QB on the shoulder and asked him to speak to the team just before kickoff.
“To me, it’s a big honor that your teammates want to hear from you before the game,” Kaepernick said.
And his message?
The words don’t tell his story. They seldom do. His actions count.
Kaepernick, with his team flailing and desperate near the end, could not be distracted by another afternoon’s worth of gaffes by the offense. It’s becoming a greatest hits parody, only reversed.
They repeat, over and over – the drop by Vernon Davis, the short-yardage nightmare, the ill-timed penalty and the turnovers. The Redskins, a 3-8 team coasting toward January tee times, sleep-walked the 49ers to within a play or two of a season-altering loss.
That dangerous place is why the quarterbacks sign the mega-contracts and do all those commercials. It’s where they live. Kaepernick earned every cent of his new contract on that final drive. He dodged a first-play sack, held the team together to convert a pass-or-fail fourth and 1, and threw a dart to Boldin for the 29-yard gain that set up the game-winning run by Carlos Hyde.
“I love to see the quarterback play the way he plays, the way he competes,” coach Jim Harbaugh said. “He’s a great player. I don’t know how everybody else doesn’t see it that way. Great with a capital G at the highest level of great.”
Skeptics will persist, of course, until Kaepernick doesn’t toss off target with the Super Bowl title on the line. Or throws a tipped-ball interception that costs the 49ers a trip to The Big One. Or is baited into a personal-foul taunt. All the above were high-profile mistakes that partially negate much of his success.
Consider the events of nearly a month ago. The 49ers trailed the St. Louis Rams 13-10 late in the game – we’ve been here before, right? – and there was Kaepernick marching the team toward the winning touchdown. At least until he fumbled on the goal line and nuked the entire game.
Since then, the 49ers have won three in a row, none impressively. They’re not unlike the rest of the NFL, which is packed with good teams but none of them great.
All they did Sunday was gain a four-day reprieve until their Thanksgiving Day grudge match against defending champion Seattle. Both are 7-4, and it’s almost a mortal lock that one will reach the playoffs and one will pack the equipment after Week 17.
More than ever, the 49ers have tied their fortunes to Kaepernick’s slender legs. With much of the nation watching while they digest their feast Thursday, the kid from Turlock again will sink or swim.
Because that’s how NFL quarterbacks roll.