What we might want to do, in our zeal to elucidate the Colin Kaepernick Phenomenon, is stop all random labeling. He likes to destroy shallow stereotypes, making us look foolish every time he peels another away. Remember when every story was about his assemblage of tats, a collage that wraps around his chest and shoulders so intricately that you can’t stop staring? He enriched that superficial hokum with a daily series of deep introspections at the Super Bowl.
And remember every depiction of him as a combat-action hero, some sort of quarterbacking sharkbot? That has ended, too. In Week 1 of the NFL season, after an offseason in which he appeared on every magazine cover but Better Homes and Gardens and was widely described as a winged ball-carrying warrior, Kaepernick demolished the pigeonhole that insisted he was a runner first and a passer second. I was among the dopes, referring to his passing skills as raw and underdeveloped.
Well, of the 434 total yards he amassed Sunday, only 22 were on the ground. All that pre-game posturing about Green Bay frothing at the mouth to hit and hurt Kaepernick, even if he pitched the ball in the read-option offense instead of keeping it, turned out to be a lot of clever deception from 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh. Kaepernick again riddled the team from his native Wisconsin like a mouse let loose on a defenseless Cheesehead, completing 27 of 39 passes for three touchdowns and his first career 400-yard passing performance — behold a 129.4 rating — in a riveting 34-28 comeback win over the Packers.
“Really a special performance by him,” Harbaugh said of his creation. “Some laser-like throws down field. Pinpoint accuracy. Managing the chaos of the game. Never blinked, never flinched. Colin Kaepernick throws as good or better than anybody I’ve ever seen on the run.”
Such realities were blinded on the fatal final sequence in February. That is when Kaepernick, on three successive plays at the Baltimore 5-yard line, tried to win a championship with passes to Michael Crabtree … and failed each time. Why not run? Even once? Wouldn’t this quarterback, coach and franchise by haunted by those decisions forever?
Sunday, Kaepernick did his best to purge the Superdome nightmare with his arm. Pity defensive coordinators who have to face this force of nature. The Packers focused on slowing down his running prowess, recalling how he stomped them with a record 181 rushing yards in the playoffs. This time, he killed them in the air. “Their game plan was to not allow him to run, so he beat them with his arm,” said 49ers safety Donte Whitner, per the San Jose Mercury News. “When we face a team that wants to take the pass away from him, he’ll use his legs. That’s what you get with a dual quarterback … make defensive coordinators have nightmares.”
“I’m just happy we put on film that we can do whatever we want,” said running back Frank Gore, per the Associated Press.
More impressively, Kaepernick achieved all of this after Packers linebacker Clay Matthews, acting out on a suggestion he’d made during the week, corralled him around the neck with a flying tackle when he already was several feet out of bounds. The second-quarter cheap shot could have rattled Kaepernick. Instead, he resumed his all-day pitch-and-catch game with new acquisition Anquan Boldin, finding the rangy wideout 13 times for 208 yards and a score.
“If intimidation is your plan,” said Kaepernick, in a classic sound bite I suspect we’ll be hearing all season, “I hope you have a better one.”
Matthews, he of the WWE hair and Gold’s Gym biceps, admitted afterward that he needs a wiser plan. “”First off, it wasn’t a very smart play,” he said. “I’d already committed to hitting the quarterback. I guess I should’ve figured he was going to step out of bounds. But it’s nothing personal. I went up to him later and was joking around with him. But not a very smart play. And that’s kind of the end of that.”
Maybe it wasn’t personal, but it was a personal foul. And a dirty one at that. “The late hit certainly was,” Harbaugh said. Already a beloved leader in the locker room — he generally is among the first players at practice each day, arriving at times just past dawn — Kaepernick was defended after the cheap shot by 49ers tackle Joe Staley, who tussled with Matthews and was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct. “I’ll try to do a better job just keeping my cool,” said Staley, per the AP. “I didn’t want see Kaep get nailed like he did out of bounds. That’s our guy out there. I’ll protect anybody. Anything I feel like is outside the rules … some of it was the comments he made this week about going after the quarterback. I wanted to grab him and let him know that’s not going to fly. That’s all I did.”
Staley’s reaction should have cost the 49ers. The fact it didn’t will be a topic on national talk radio. The offsetting penalties on a deadball foul should have made it fourth down, but the officials erred, replaying third down and giving the 49ers an extra shot. Rather than settle for a field goal, Kaepernick hit Boldin for a 10-yard score. Oops. “The down should have counted,” referee Bill Leavy admitted in a pool report. “The penalties were both dead ball, and they should have offset at the spot where the runner went out of bounds. And it would have been fourth down.”
Officiating snafus happen. What we’ll remember about the cheap shot is how Kaepernick’s teammates rallied around him. It was only his 11th NFL start, remember; this time last season, he was backing up Alex Smith, who was on his way to a terrific two months until Harbaugh made one of the all-time gutsy calls and replaced Smith with Kaepernick. The 49ers have a roster filled with marquee stars and leaders, but it’s already clear whose team this is. On his radio show last week, Harbaugh said he has instructed younger players “to follow the lead of Colin Kaepernick in terms of how he works, how he prepares, how he competes, the fire that burns in him to be great. For us, that’s a great thing. That is a wonderful thing that we have a young, ascending, improving dynamic player that is Colin Kaepernick, and the way he leads, too. You talk about the leadership, just by example, just by what he does, just what he does every single day, the continuous effort that he displays is a great leading factor.”
Take last week, when Matthews was yapping about wanting to hit him, which Harbaugh turned into a public discussion about targeting amid football’s concussion crisis. “I’m not worried about that,” Kaepernick said. “It’s football. You’re going to get hit.”
And when he got hit, he made the Packers pay the next play.
With his, um, raw and underdeveloped arm.
Let’s just call him the most breathtaking dual-threat QB in the sport and stop analyzing him. The idea is to enjoy the Colin Kaepernick Phenomenon. Embrace something we’ve never seen before, you know?