San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick throws before the NFC Championship game against the Atlanta Falcons on Jan. 20.
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick throws before the NFC Championship game against the Atlanta Falcons on Jan. 20. David Goldman/AP
There's always a question surrounding San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Years ago, people wondered whether the talented athlete would be good enough to start in college.
Then there was the question of what role he would play in the NFL. And after the 49ers took him, fans questioned whether he could throw enough to be more than a backup.
Now, the only question is: How do you stop Colin Kaepernick? The second-year quarterback out of Nevada is making just his 10th NFL start and is perhaps the most important player in the Super Bowl. No defense has been able to figure out Kaepernick's unique blend of mobility and pocket passing.
Southern Methodist University coach June Jones came up with a strategy.
"Make him throw the ball to beat us," he says. "Don't let him run."
Jones' 2009 SMU team handed Kaepernick a bowl game loss during his junior year. And when Jones was the head coach at the University of Hawaii, he was the architect of a game plan during Kaepernick's freshman year that committed to stopping the run at the risk of leaving receivers open. But Kaepernick couldn't connect.
Every defense must pick its poison with Kaepernick, Jones says. Even with the quarterback's passing success, the coach still fears his running ability.
"There's never been a guy with his size, speed and, now, his throwing ability — which, to be quite honest, even though he's throwing the ball very, very good the last six or eight weeks, I still think you cannot let him beat you running the ball," Jones explains.
Kaepernick's throwing mechanics aren't textbook material. But former college and NFL coach Roger Theder, who is something of a quarterback guru, says Kaepernick makes up for his quirks.
"I definitely see him getting better," says Theder, who worked with Kaepernick in high school and after college. "They talked about his release being bad. I think one thing he does is he doesn't keep his left hand on the ball. He throws like a pitcher, but I like the fact that the point is always facing forward, and he throws the ball very accurately, very, very good."
The 49ers don't just have a weapon in Kaepernick. They have a delivery system known as the pistol offense. From this formation, Kaepernick can throw to three or four receivers, run the ball himself, handoff to a back, or fake the handoff and then throw. If he makes the right choice, he has the skill to hurt the defense in more ways than one.
Chris Brown, who analyzes the game at smartfootball.com, marvels at Kaepernick's ability to come to the line of scrimmage, change the play before the ball is snapped, and make a decision after the snap about where to go with the ball, even on a run play.
"I think it's really impressive, and that's what's really difficult to defend if the guy's making those good decisions," Brown says.
Kaepernicks's athleticism will be countered by the Ravens' speed and skill, but the game will come down to a battle of wits, or at least lightning-quick mental moves between the quarterback and Ravens safeties like Ed Reed. On every play, Reed will be figuring out whether to tear off against the right ball carrier, or whether to drop into coverage having sussed out a pass play. The mental game thrills an aficionado like Brown.
"Kaepernick's an unbelievable player, but you're still talking about a guy who hasn't started a full season versus Ed Reed, who's one of the craftiest defensive players around," Brown says.
Even if the defenders are at the top of their games cerebrally, they still have to execute the task that could sway the Super Bowl: catching the quixotic Colin Kaepernick.