ST. LOUIS — Colin Kaepernick stumbled. He also glided in the open field, threw fist pumps and showed flashes of what can be a rich future.
Kaepernick walked from the Edward Jones Dome as the reason for the San Francisco 49ers’ loss. He also left as someone worthy of coach Jim Harbaugh’s trust.
“Be smart with the ball,” said the second-year quarterback, after losing to the St. Louis Rams 16-13 in overtime Sunday, when asked what he learned. “Our defense played a great game. I gave up those points that were on the scoreboard for the Rams, so that’s 100 percent my fault.”
It was a grab-bag day for the 25-year-old Nevada product. Some good. Some bad. And one stain on what was a spotless record as a starter.
This is where the Kaepernick Experiment stands, now in its third week after Rams linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar crunched Alex Smith at Candlestick Park: An unknown. An unfinished lab project. Kaepernick soared in victories over the Chicago Bears and New Orleans Saints. Sunday, he was smacked to Earth.
“I am proud of the way he played,” said Harbaugh, who saw Kaepernick complete 21 of 32 passes for 208 yards. “I thought he did some things under heat and duress, and I think he handled himself well. He gave our team a chance to win.”
True, but he also gave it a chance to lose. Two plays soiled his undefeated mark since taking over for Smith in the second quarter of Week 10. In the third quarter Sunday, he was flagged for a safety when his pass in the end zone fluttered out of bounds short of the line of scrimmage like a wounded duck after pursuit from linebacker James Laurinaitis and cornerback Janoris Jenkins. In the fourth quarter, a pitch intended for wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. sailed wide, allowing Jenkins to pounce on the ball for a touchdown.
Here’s the math: Kaepernick’s fingerprints were on 10 of the Rams’ 13 points in regulation (St. Louis converted a two-point conversion after Jenkins’ recovery). He was more Mr. Hyde than Dr. Jekyll. This is youth’s price: There’s salt mixed with the sugar as players earn Sunday scars. The Rams, for one, left Kaepernick with a bitter aftertaste.
“Just keep working,” said Kaepernick, who led his team with 84 yards on nine carries, including a 50-yard run in the fourth quarter that led to a field goal. “There’s nothing more that you can do than keep working and get ready for next week.”
Next week should look the same. After the game, Harbaugh addressed his brewing controversy behind center by saying, “I will let you know if there is a change. Right now, I think the field will be the same as it was this week.”
That’s little surprise. On paper, this was Kaepernick’s worst start, but his fall was small. He threw for 243 yards with two touchdowns against the Bears. He had 231 yards passing with one touchdown and an interception against the Saints. His 83.9 passer rating Sunday was a drop-off from his previous two (he earned a 133.1 against Chicago and a 90.6 against New Orleans). Few in the locker room, though, felt reason to sound an alarm.
Tight end Vernon Davis, who had two catches for 15 yards: “He has faced a lot of adversity within his life. This is just part of it. He’ll bounce back, and he’ll come in and get ready for the next one.”
Running back Frank Gore, who had 23 carries for 58 yards and a touchdown: “He was calm. It just didn’t go our way. … It’s hard to win games on Sundays. The Rams came, and they stuck around and kept playing hard.”
Ginn, who had one catch for 1 yard: “He played great, man. He played like a quarterback should play. Good poise. Good tempo. Yeah, a couple times it didn’t go our way. But he still bounced back. … At the end of the day, we were still in the game. That’s what you ask for.”
But will Kaepernick deliver what the 49ers hope for? Clearly, San Francisco has the talent to repeat as NFC West champions. Clearly, he has Harbaugh’s blessing for now as the face of the future. Clearly, he must struggle more for Smith to regain the starting role.
Still, Kaepernick’s mistakes were part of a heat-check moment. He offers speed that Smith lacks, but his inexperience could lead to more errors. He runs like a deer. He can throw a laser. But he showed he’s capable of blunders that can become wounds.
“I have to play better,” Kaepernick said. “There were plays out there that I should have made. There were plays that happened that I shouldn’t have let happen.”
Some plays sparkled. Others were dull.
With youth, bad comes with the good. When Kaepernick turned his back on his first loss as a starter, he knew more work remained.
You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at email@example.com.