Kaepernick dazzles, defies labels in win
Forty Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick had been waiting to do his turn answering journalist questions at the podium when Michael Crabtree walked in. Kaep deferred to his wide receiver, hanging back to listen.
And he appeared, at least to my eye, to blush just a little as Crabtree described what he saw in a game in which Kaepernick passed for 263 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 181 yards (an NFL record for a quarterback in any game) and two more touchdowns.
“The guy is playing football, man. He is making it happen. With his feet, with his arms, he’s just out there, making plays,” Crabtree said, properly summarizing the key points of Saturday night’s 45-31 San Francisco victory against Green Bay in the NFC divisional round.
The danger is people will do what people always do, which is use what Kaepernick did to score points on whatever happens to be their NFL argument of choice — viability of the read-option as an NFL offense, Kaepernick’s staying power vs. that of say McNabb or Vick or RG3, the leadership ability of people with tattoos.
If there is a lesson in Kaepernick, though, it is the danger of labels, of grouping him with anybody or of extrapolating anything else about any player past or present based on what he does. In a league where we love to label guys — running quarterback, pocket passer — he will only confuse you. He defies traditional labels.
He runs like RG3. He passes like Aaron Rodgers.
“I don’t want to be categorized,” Kaepernick said when I asked him afterward of our need to label players as this or that.
It was one of the better answers I have heard from an NFL player in a long time, uttered with just enough hint of “bleep you” to suggest too that he already has tired of being squeezed into our boxes.
It is not right to call him a running quarterback, though he ripped through Green Bay’s defense with ease. It is not right to call him a pocket passer, though he took turns with Rodgers throwing darts into teeny-tiny windows. It continued until Rodgers very unexpectedly blinked first. He is unapologetically him.
This term running quarterback is weak anyway. All quarterbacks run to some extent, especially when chased. The thing about Kaepernick is he outruns.
His second touchdown of the night, the 56-yard run that surpassed Steve McNair as the longest by a quarterback in the playoffs, included him blowing right by five Packer defenders. Like they never even laid a hand on him.
“It’s one thing when you see a guy get behind a guy and they try to run and the guy already has a step,'' 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis said. "But when the guys come across the field at an angle and he eats up the angle, that is fast.”
Kaepernick had eclipsed the most running yards by a QB in an NFL playoff game by midway through the third quarter, when he had 163. So, of course, the instinct is to compare him to McNair and Donovan McNabb, Mike Vick and Vince Young, even rookies Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson.
The sticky part is those comparisons come with questions, questions about durability and drop-back passing ability and long-term success that arose at different times about each of these players. And those questions do not seem to apply to Kaepernick.
Because based on what we saw Saturday, there is just as relevant a comparison to Rodgers and Andrew Luck and Peyton Manning. He has devastating ability in both areas, and this makes him an absolute beast to deal with on a football field.
At the heart of this is San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh — what he believed he had in Kaepernick and his willingness to be wrong.
There is no Kaepernick starting Saturday if Harbaugh is not willing to gamble, to eschew what is safe and most likely less prone to error (Alex Smith) for what had the potential to be spectacular (Kaepernick).
This is one of the greatest skills a coach, and really a human, can have — the willingness to really step into the arena, to dare greatly, to be willing to fail, to trust your gut.
Harbaugh was asked afterward if he felt like the correctness of his decision, switching from Smith to Kaepernick during the season, was on the line Saturday. He did not answer at all, instead delivering a little "Friday Night Lights" dialogue with talk of clear eyes and full hearts.
“Uh, no,” he started before landing on the firmer ground of cliche. “I thought they competed like maniacs. And we have another week of work, so we’ll move on with humble hearts and get ready for our next opponent.”
The non-answer was an answer. Of course, it was a test.
In this idiot world we live in, people were talking Smith after Kaepernick threw a pick-6 in the opening moments. It is a drum beat that only would have grown louder if the 49ers had lost. Instead, it will go the other way. He will be used as talking point.
Carolina need not abandon its offense with Cam Newton. People with tattoos cannot only lead but kick ass. Teams need to go get themselves a “pistol”-running quarterback.
And why? Because of what Kaepernick has done. He’s a better, faster version of Vick-McNabb-RG3, which is problematic because it simply is not true at all.
He is not any version of those guys. Nor is he a version of anybody we are seeing in the NFL right now. He does not want to be categorized. Nor can he be.