NEW ORLEANS -- This was the tipping point Who Dat Nation had been waiting on. Its beloved Saints, after surrendering 21 consecutive points, had scored to make it a one-touchdown game, and now they had 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick facing 3rd-and-11 from his 35-yard line.
The Superdome shook with anticipation. Surely the second-year QB -- in his first road start -- would feel the pressure of the moment, if not the New Orleans pass rush. He was outstanding six days earlier in his first career start, but that was at home, against a Bears team with a relatively vanilla defense and an awful offense whose porous line couldn't protect backup-turned-starter Jason Campbell.
But now Kaepernick was in a hostile environment and matched against a desperate opponent seeking its fifth win in six games, with a quarterback who's one of the game's best closers. The roar inside the dome was deafening as he took the snap in the shotgun, but not so loud that running back Frank Gore couldn't hear what Kaepernick barked as he released a pass that sailed down the right seam before landing behind the linebackers and in front of the safeties for a 25-yard gain to tight end Delanie Walker.
"Yeah! You motherf----rs!" he said.
As much as outsiders have been impressed with the poise and efficiency Kaepernick has displayed in his two starts -- he is 32 of 48 passing for 474 yards and three scores (and a fourth rushing) with only one pick -- teammates and coaches are equally excited by his athletic arrogance. From behind his facemask Kaepernick plays with an edge and attitude that's infectious to those around him.
"On one of my runs he was out there like, 'Run the hell out of that motherf-----r!' " Gore said. "That gets you going, seeing your quarterback out there like that."
It is a side of Kaepernick that few see. Speak with him or watch one of his interviews and the takeaway is of someone personable, respectful and quick to flash a disarming smile. He says nothing controversial, spewing answers that lack flavor and personality.
On the field is another matter, though. People in the organization smile and shake their heads at his unwavering self-confidence. In his mind there's nothing he can't do on the field, no play he can't make -- which is understandable considering he was the first player in Div. 1-A history to eclipse 2,000 yards passing and 1,000 yards rushing in three consecutive seasons while starring at Nevada.
"He can handle a lot of pressure," says linebacker NaVorro Bowman. "Kap's just a guy with a lot of confidence. He believes he can play with the best."
"The sky's the limit," says tight end Vernon Davis. "He's a great player. He brings a lot to the game. He's one of those guys that makes the game so much more exciting. He's very confident. He'll come out and he'll make plays because he wants to be good. He knows that's the only way to take advantage of these opportunities, and when you look on his face it's as if he's been here for quite a long time."
Davis and his teammates were quick to also praise incumbent Alex Smith, who led the Niners to the NFC Championship Game last season and is 20-6-1 as a starter the last two years. But it would be a monumental surprise if coach Jim Harbaugh doesn't name Kaepernick the permanent starter today, despite Smith being fully recovered from a concussion that opened the door for Kaepernick two weeks ago.
To this point Harbaugh has handled the situation clumsily at best. Instead of publicly throwing his support behind Smith and squashing any controversy after the Bears game -- something he had done at every opening since being hired before the 2011 season -- he fanned the flames by saying he likely would go with the hot hand.
Intended or not it was a slap in the face of Smith, who before the concussion had completed 25 of 27 passes for four touchdowns and no picks in his last six quarters. Three days later Harbaugh told Smith he planned to start Kaepernick against the Saints, adding that it was for reasons unrelated to Smith's health. You don't do that unless you've made up your mind to make a change.
Kaepernick has made Harbaugh look like a football savant. He has been calm, cool and unfazed by the moment. He not only has put passes where they can be caught, but where receivers can grab them in stride for big gains. When openings haven't been available at first glance, his nimble feet have allowed him to extend plays or take off for key first downs or touchdowns.
No one was more impressed Sunday than center Jonathan Goodwin, who played five seasons in New Orleans before signing with San Francisco.
"It's extremely tough to play in this environment. I've seen quarterbacks break down with the noise and the crowd and the pressure. Colin stepped up and didn't flinch. That says a lot about him. He's a kid with a bright future. He's really confident and it shows."
Some look at the 6-foot-4, 230-pound Kaepernick and see athlete. He has the strong arm, the quick feet and the ability to turn convert disastrous into dynamic in the blink of an eye. But he also has the football intellect to be successful. On multiple occasions he has come to the line and spotted alignments that got the 49ers out of bad situations and into successful ones.
"One time early in the game (against the Saints) a certain protection was called, but he alerted him to something that caused the protection to be changed and we got the first down," Goodwin said. "He did things like that last week too. He knows what to do and is on top of things. That says a lot. Most of the time these young guys come into the league and they're all over the place."
If Kaepernick's first two starts are the floor, it begs the question of where the ceiling is with him. Get ready, we're about to find out.