Simon Bruty/Sports Illustrated

Colin Kaepernick’s electrifying legs have carried the 49ers into the divisional round, but can he avoid critical missteps against the Panthers’ formidable D?

By Robert Klemko
January 06, 2014

GREEN BAY, Wis. — How long can you teeter on the edge of a cliff before falling off? How much longer can Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers keep on living dangerously?

Consider San Francisco’s 3rd-and-8 play late in the fourth quarter at Lambeau Field on Sunday. Kaepernick dropped back from Green Bay’s 38-yard line, needing a first down and a score to break a 20-20 deadlock and eliminate the Packers from the playoffs for the second year in a row. Cornerback Jarrett Bush crashed off the left edge, only to be neutralized by running back Frank Gore as Kaepernick put the brakes on his arm mid-throw, the same way a young Tiger Woods would halt his colossal downswing at the distracting chirp of a spectator.

Kaepernick was targeting Michael Crabtree despite blanket coverage on a slant route. But once Gore knocked Bush off his path to the quarterback, Kaepernick took off running without a second’s pause. He bolted toward the 49ers’ sideline and around limping linebacker Andy Mulumba for 11 yards. Five plays later Phil Dawson kicked a football that felt like a frozen turkey for a 33-yard field goal to send the 49ers on to the divisional round.

Kaepernick’s game-changing play happened in a frenzy, but it wouldn’t have been possible without the foresight of a coach. Bush had blitzed in similar fashion earlier in the game, spinning inside and away from Gore’s lunging chip block. On the sideline, running backs coach Tom Rathman told Gore to be more patient when Bush is the one blitzing. “Let him come to me and push him in,” Gore said, recalling the advice.

When the stakes were at their highest, when Gore’s lungs felt on fire from inhaling the frigid air, he followed those instructions. Bush stutter-stepped to the inside, and Gore pumped his hands and caught him in the chest, pushing the cornerback further inside and springing Kaepernick, whose seventh and final carry helped net him a season-high 98 yards—his most since setting an NFL QB record with 181 in last season’s divisional-round win over the Packers.

TK (Simon Bruty/SI) Simon Bruty/Sports Illustrated

His lungs seemingly immune to the arctic chill, Kaepernick remains as electrifying as ever in his second year as San Francisco’s starter. But there’s still a risk-reward element to his game. He wings it farther, harder and more accurately than most other QBs, and he runs so swiftly and with such decisiveness that using a linebacker to spy him is a laughable notion. And yet, he always seems to be on the brink of making a wrong decision. What would have happened had Rathman not picked up on Bush’s blitzing tendency? Would Kaepernick have forced the ball to a well-covered Crabtree, the first and only receiver he appeared to consider? Probably.

If not for Dawson fitting his kick just inside the right upright as time expired, we could be talking about the comeback magic of Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the tempestuous play of Kaepernick. The latter dazzled with a pinpoint, 28-yard touchdown pass to Vernon Davis in the fourth quarter, but he also made you scratch your head with a wounded-duck of a pass in the second quarter that Tramon Williams intercepted in the red zone, a pick that led directly to a Green Bay score.

We tend not to scrutinize so closely because Kaepernick is able to compensate with his legs. But will they be the same kind of weapons next weekend against the Panthers, who have the league’s second-best defense? Or perhaps in two weeks against the Seahawks, who have the league’s best? Even the Saints have a top-five defense, unlike the Packers, who rank among the NFL’s worst (24th in points and 25th in yards) and went into battle on Sunday without linebacker Clay Matthews.

Kaepernick still has a fatal flaw, which Packers backup QB Seneca Wallace could see from his vantage point on Green Bay’s sideline. “He’s a playmaker. You look at their big plays, he extended them with his feet,” Wallace says. “But he’s got to fix his footwork.”

In Wallace’s eyes, the breakout star of 2012 and the losing QB in Super Bowl XLVII played with more maturity in last Sunday’s 23-20 victory than he did a year ago in the playoffs, when the 49ers beat Green Bay, 45-31, in San Francisco. But is Kaepernick’s game polished enough to carry San Francisco to the Lombardi Trophy this season?

Frozen In Time | Photographs by Simon Bruty | Sports Illustrated/The MMQB

“As a quarterback that is very mobile, you think you can do things differently instead of just playing the position and using your feet when you drop back,” Wallace says. “You’re like, ‘Oh, I’m so athletic I can just do this.’ When his footwork is on time, he throws a pretty good ball. But when it’s not, he doesn’t always get it there.”

It’s not just hard feelings coming from the losers’ locker room; the dichotomy was on full display. On that second-quarter interception, Kaepernick got lazy despite having time to throw. He neglected to plant his back foot, he wobbled, and so did the ball. (He then took an unnecessary risk, meeting the weaving Williams head-on with a helmet-to-helmet tackle.) At one point in the fourth quarter, Kaepernick dropped back with the precision of the Marine Corps marching band, hitting Davis in the numbers as two Packers converged. But on 49ers’ final drive—on a play destined to be forgotten because of what came after—Kaepernick rushed his read and unleashed his anvil of an arm, the ball slipping through the hands of Packers defensive back Micah Hyde on an intended out-route.

It might seem like piling on, because Kaepernick got thisclose to the Lombardi Trophy last season, and (forgetting his near interception) he engineered a 14-play, 65-yard drive to keep the 49ers alive in these playoffs. But the margin for error suddenly gets smaller against the Panthers, whose formidable defensive ends, Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy, will force Kaepernick to make even quicker decisions while taking away escape valves around the edge. They anchor a defense that held San Francisco to a season-low 151 yards of total offense in a 10-9 win in Week 10. Kaepernick had his worst game of 2013, completing 11 of 22 passes for 91 yards, zero TDs and one interception. He was sacked six times for a loss of 45 yards; he ran just four times for 16 yards.

But that was on Nov. 10, so give credit where it’s due. Kaepernick has another game next Sunday, and whether it turns out to be a stepping stone to something bigger, or a season-ending stumble, will largely depend on his footwork.

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