Much has been written about 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s obvious physical skills, but the greatest asset that he possesses, and what may put him in the elite category before too long, may well be what he has between his ears.
It’s hard to ignore Kaepernick’s physical gifts. He throws the ball with such accuracy and velocity that you can see the arm that delivered a 92 mph fastball and made him a highly recruited baseball player that was drafted into the majors, just like John Elway. When he runs the ball and hits the open field, his long strides and break away speed looks more like Usain Bolt strapped on football pads.
But what really separates Kaepernick from the pack is his mental resilience. For a quarterback that will be making his tenth professional start in the Super Bowl, he is completely unshakeable under pressure. Regardless of the circumstances, he makes good decisions and good reads, calmly leading the team regardless of the scoreboard. That’s remarkable for any quarterback, much less one with less than a full season of NFL starts.
In the divisional round, Kaepernick made his first playoff start, facing reigning NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers. The Packers had won 9 of their last 11 regular season games and had looked dominant in knocking off the Minnesota Vikings in the Wild Card Round. On Kaepernick’s second pass of the game, he threw an interception that was returned 52 yards for a touchdown, and the 49ers were behind 7-0 while Rodgers hadn’t even taken the field yet.
But rather than getting flustered, getting conservative or starting to second guess his decision making, Kaepernick calmly answered with an 8-play, 80-yard drive capped with a 20-yard touchdown run by Kaepernick to even the game. He went on to recover from that early play with one of the greatest performances in NFL playoff history – 17 of 31 for 263 yards with 2 TDs (out-passing Rodgers in the process) and adding an NFL-record 181 yards rushing on 16 carries with 2 rushing TDs.
Move ahead one week to the NFC Championship game, and things started much worse. For the first quarter, the 49ers had -2 yards of total offense, in two 3-and-out series. In the meantime, the Falcons were moving the ball at will, and held a 17-0 lead early in the second quarter. Julio Jones looked unstoppable with over 100 yards and 2 TDs in the first 16 minutes of play. The Atlanta defense was committing a player to stopping Kaepernick on the read option (he would only run twice for 21 yards in the whole game). They would force him to hand the ball off and to throw from the pocket.
Both Kaepernick and the 49ers remained calm and adjusted to what the defense was giving. As a pocket passer, Kaerpernick was 16 of 21 (76 percent) for 233 yards with 1 TD, and a passer efficiency of 127.7. The rest of the 49ers offense stepped up, as they totaled 149 yards on the ground, with 90 rushing yards and 2 TDs coming from Frank Gore.
By halftime, the 49ers would cut the lead to 24-14 and they finally took the lead (for the first time, and for good) on a 9-yard TD run by Gore with 8:23 to go in the fourth quarter.
Certainly, Kaepernick was aided by the running game, and by defensive adjustments that led to them pitching a shutout for the entire second half after the Falcons’ passing game looked unstoppable for the first 20 minutes. But just as importantly, Kaepernick played within the offense, made the right reads, led sustained drives and didn’t panic when playing from behind.
While his arm and his legs got him the starting job, it will be his decision making, his mental resiliency and coolness under pressure that have the potential to make Colin Kaepernick one of the elite quarterbacks of the NFL. A Super Bowl victory next week in his tenth start would certainly be a big step in building that resume.
Ice Kaep – cooler than the other side of the pillow.
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