Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 7, 2013

A Tale Of Two Quarterbacks

Aside from the retiring Ray Lewis, no player on either team received as much media attention in the run-up to the Super Bowl as 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. The focus wasn’t surprising given Kaepernick’s meteoric rise and compelling story.  A second round draft pick out of the University of Nevada in 2011, he was intercepted five times in just fifty passing attempts while backing up Alex Smith during his rookie year. He began the 2012 season in the same role, seeing occasional action when San Francisco switched to the wildcat formation. With Smith owning the highest completion percentage and third highest quarterback rating in the league and the 49ers sporting a 6-2 record in early November, Kaepernick seemed destined to remain in his supporting role.

But as every football fan knows Smith was forced from the Week 10 game against St. Louis when a hard hit left him with a concussion. Kaepernick brought San Francisco from behind in a game that ended in that rarest of NFL results, a tie. Then one week later he picked apart the Chicago secondary, completing 16 of 23 passes for 243 yards and two touchdowns in a 32-7 rout. By the following week’s game at New Orleans team doctors had cleared Smith to return to his starting role, and of course an old maxim in the NFL is that a starting player never loses their position atop the depth chart due to injury. But while he had a lengthy playing career, Jim Harbaugh is in only his second year as an NFL head coach, so perhaps he hasn’t had time to learn all the old maxims. As fans in San Francisco chose sides in a growing quarterback controversy, Harbaugh stuck with Kaepernick.

Whichever quarterback they initially wanted to see in the starting role, by season’s end most 49ers fans were more than pleased with the results of Harbaugh’s decision. In seven starts Kaepernick led the team to five victories, including an impressive 41-34 triumph over New England in Foxborough, the first time the Patriots had lost a home game in December in a decade. In securing the NFC West division title and second seed in the playoffs Kaepernick proved to be the latest exemplar of the new type of NFL quarterback. Like Robert Griffin III in Washington and Russell Wilson in Seattle, Kaepernick combined a rocket arm with tremendous mobility. His 62% completion rate, ten passing touchdowns and 98.3 quarterback rating, while good, all ranked below the starter he replaced. But Kaepernick kept opposing defenses off-balance because of the ever-present possibility that he would keep the ball himself. In half a season he rushed for 415 yard and five touchdowns, both second on the team behind only starting running back Frank Gore.

If his performance on the field wasn’t enough to attract fans, there was also his personal story. Given up for adoption by his unmarried birth mother at the age of five weeks, Kaepernick was raised by a couple who were looking to adopt a boy after losing two biological sons to heart defects. A two sport star in high school, he pitched a pair of no-hitters in his senior year, but turned down several baseball scholarship offers to accept the only football offer made to him, from Nevada. Heavily tattooed with representations of his Christian faith, Kaepernick is a supremely confident young man, having written a letter while in the fourth grade correctly predicting that he would grow to be 6’ 4” and “go to the pros and play for the Niners or the Packers.”

In the playoffs San Francisco crushed Green Bay, and then rallied from deficits of 17-0 and 24-14 on the road in Atlanta. The 28-24 comeback victory in the NFC Championship meant that the Super Bowl would be the tenth start of the 25-year old Kaepernick’s young career.

With Kaepernick the quarterback flavor of the moment and so much of the rest of the media focus on linebacker Lewis, perhaps it wasn’t surprising that Joe Flacco was able to slip rather quietly into the Superdome for Sunday’s big game. In the final year of the original contract he signed after Baltimore made him the highest NFL draft pick ever from the University of Delaware with the 18th pick in 2008, Flacco lacks the sizzle of his Super Bowl opponent. He’s certainly no dual threat, having piled up all of 22 yards rushing during the regular season. But what Flacco does is win football games.

Thrust into the starting role as a rookie with incumbent quarterback Kyle Boller was lost for the year with a preseason injury; Flacco led the Ravens to an 11-5 record and became only the third rookie in NFL history to win his first postseason start, and the first ever to do so on the road. He has taken Baltimore back to the playoffs every year since, and every year has won at least one playoff game. But the Ravens have always been known for their ferocious defense, and credit for their success has usually gone to the likes of Lewis or safety Ed Reed, with Flacco seen as little more than a competent manager of the team’s offense.

But if Flacco lacks Kaepernick’s flair (and tattoos), he can match him in confidence. Last July he turned down a contract extension, believing he could produce a season that would generate a bigger payday. He took the Ravens to their second consecutive AFC North division title. In the Wild Card round he was overshadowed by the Colts’ outstanding rookie Andrew Luck; but Flacco and Baltimore won the game 24-9. In the Divisional playoff game he was an afterthought to the talk of Peyton Manning’s incredible comeback year with the Broncos; but it was Flacco who tossed an improbable 70-yard touchdown pass in the closing moments of regulation to force overtime on the way to 38-35 win. In the AFC Championship he was presumed to be no match for Tom Brady’s career of playoff heroics; but when the final gun sounded Flacco had thrown for 240 yards and three touchdowns in the 28-13 Ravens victory.

On Sunday Kaepernick and the 49ers appeared disorganized and nervous throughout the first half, while Flacco and the Ravens looked unstoppable. When a 21-6 Baltimore lead at halftime ballooned to 28-6 with a 108-yard touchdown return on the second half kickoff it seemed that the rout was officially on. To Kaepernick’s credit he didn’t let his team quit, and after a surreal delay caused by a power outage at the Superdome, San Francisco rallied to make a game of it. But the 4-point betting line favorites never led; and in the game’s final minutes, when his team had a first and goal on the five yard line and the chance for Super Bowl glory, Kaepernick played like the young and still relatively untested quarterback that in truth he is.

Colin Kaepernick looks to be the real deal, one of several young quarterbacks who may well be about to redefine how the position is played. With more experience and maturity, he stands a good chance of leading San Francisco back to the NFL’s big game. But for now he stands as the only 49ers quarterback to ever lose a Super Bowl. Meanwhile sturdy Joe Flacco finished his playoff run with eleven touchdown passes and no interceptions, tying him with some guy named Montana for the most TD passes without an interception in a single post-season. Now Joe goes to Disney World, and then gets to reap the very, very large benefits of turning down that contract extension.

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Responses

  1. Hate football, loved this post. If you wrote a blog about Bocce Ball, I’d read it.
    Bill

    • Thanks for you kind words Bill. Two feet of blowing and drifting snow up here. Any chance you’ve got a spare room down there in SC? 🙂
      Mike

      • Actually, we do! Anytime you like, my friend.
        Bill


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