MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
One of the stars in this Sunday's Super Bowl will be making just his 10th NFL start. He's a quarterback, Colin Kaepernick. He can both pass and run, and those skills have frustrated opposing defenses and helped lead the San Francisco 49ers to the championship game. NPR's Mike Pesca asks what it will take for the Baltimore Ravens to stop Kaepernick or at least slow him down.
MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Colin Kaepernick courts questions. The first question was, will this talented athlete be good enough to start in college? He turned out to be good enough to star. Question answered Re: Colin Kaepernick, college quarterback. Then there was the question of what role he would play in the NFL. After the 49ers took him in the second round, there was, once more, the old question of if he could throw enough to be more than a backup. Once more, the answer was yes. Now, the only question is how do you stop Colin Kaepernick? SMU coach June Jones came up with this strategy.
JUNE JONES: Make him throw the ball to beat us, don't let him run.
PESCA: Jones' 2009 Southern Methodist team handed Kaepernick a bowl game loss during his junior year. And going back to Kaepernick's freshman year, June Jones, then head coach of Hawaii, was once again the architect of a game plan which committed to stopping the run at the risk of leaving receivers open, but Kaepernick couldn't connect. Still, Jones says Kaepernick can do so many things that a defense must pick its poison. But even with Kaepernick's passing success, Jones still fears the quarterback's running ability.
JONES: There's never been a guy with his size, speed and now his throwing ability, which, to be quite honest, even though he is throwing the ball very, very good the last six or eight weeks, I still think you cannot let him beat you running the ball.
PESCA: Kaepernick's throwing mechanics aren't textbook. But Roger Theder, a former college and NFL coach, who is now something of a quarterback guru, says that Kaepernick makes up for his quirks.
ROGER THEDER: I definitely see him getting better. And they talked about his release being bad. I think one thing he does, 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.
PESCA: Theder, who worked with Kaepernick a bit in high school and prepped him after college for the NFL draft, notes his improvement since coming into the NFL. And 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, hand off 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 so many ways.
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 it's snapped, and then...
CHRIS BROWN: He makes that decision. Then after the snap, he's got to make another decision about where to go with the ball even on a run play. So I think it's really impressive, and that's what's really difficult to defend if the guy is making those good decisions.
PESCA: Kaepernick'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.
BROWN: Kaepernick's an unbelievable player, but you're still talking about a guy in his, you know, who hasn't even started a full season versus Ed Reed, whose one of the craftiest defensive players around.
PESCA: Of course, even if the defenders are at the top of their game cerebrally, they still have to execute that task that could sway the Super Bowl: catching the quixotic Colin Kaepernick. Mike Pesca, NPR News, New Orleans.