Kaepernick's Upside Means Upgrade to Offense

Kaepernick (Cary Edmondson - USA Today Sports)

San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh made a huge gamble by hitching a championship contender's wagon to a quarterback with 29 career pass attempts. Colin Kaepernick, however, has been outstanding by making big plays while avoiding big mistakes.

Colin Kaepernick was born in Milwaukee and spent the first four years of his life living in the northeastern Wisconsin communities of New London and Fond du Lac before moving to California. He's spent parts of countless summers coming back to Wisconsin to visit family.

The Packers "were the only team I watched" as a kid and his favorite quarterback was Brett Favre.

Showing his singular focus, none of that history means a thing as he prepares to line up at quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers on Saturday night against the Green Bay Packers.

"Right now, they're the next team we play. That's what the situation is," Kaepernick said during a conference call with Packers beat reporters on Tuesday.

When the 49ers beat the Packers at Lambeau Field in Week 1, veteran Alex Smith was San Francisco's quarterback. Smith suffered a concussion in a tie against St. Louis on Nov. 11. When Kaepernick led the 49ers to a 32-7 rout of Chicago the following week, Harbaugh made a calculated gamble.

Rather than go back to Smith, who statistically was having an outstanding season, Harbaugh stuck with Kaepernick, the 36th selection of the 2011 draft. Smith, whom the 49ers famously selected No. 1 overall ahead of Aaron Rodgers in 2005, had experience on his side but Kaepernick had the physical tools to put an elite team over the top. At 6-foot-5 and 233 pounds, Kaepernick has a rocket for a right arm — he was considered a top Major League Baseball prospect with his 94 mph fastball — and ran a 4.43 40 in front of scouts at his on-campus workout.

With 29 career passing attempts, was the time right to hitch a Super Bowl contender's wagon to someone with so little experience?

The numbers don't lie. In the eight games in which Smith started and finished, the 49ers averaged 23.6 points per game. In the seven games in which Kaepernick has started, the 49ers averaged 26.3 points per game.

Smith's numbers were fantastic. His passer rating of 104.1 ranked third in the league and he led the league with 70.2 percent accuracy. Kaepernick, however, has been outstanding. While he's completed only 62.4 percent of his passes, he led the league with 8.3 yards per passing attempt and was 13th in passer rating at 98.3. Plus, he's been lethal on the move with 415 yards (6.6 average) and five touchdowns.

"He's improved in I would say all phases, really," Harbaugh said in his conference call. "Not dramatically, though, because I think he was good to start with. Some of the early snaps that he got at the beginning of the season – he got in that game in Green Bay and he got in games, spot play, but he was good then. Once he started, he was already good but definitely I think across the board he's improved. Not dramatically but, you know, to some degree in just about every area."

The book on most young quarterbacks is they're apt to make a big mistake. And that's why there was such consternation about Harbaugh's decision to go with Kaepernick over a productive Smith. The 49ers, with their juggernaut defense and outstanding running game, needed a quarterback who wouldn't screw things up.

Kaepernick, however, hasn't screwed up anything. He's thrown three interceptions in 218 passes, a rate of 1.38 percent. For context, Rodgers — with the lowest career interception percentage in NFL history — has thrown eight interceptions in 552 passes, a rate of 1.45 percent.

"The thing is, when you face a running quarterback, he feels confident in his legs," cornerback Tramon Williams said on Tuesday. "If he feels he's in a bad situation, he feels confidence in his legs so he'll run instead of throw a pick. That's normal for a quarterback that's really athletic. We always feel that we can get the ball if the opportunity presents itself. Hopefully, we can force him to do it, and if we can, when the opportunity presents itself, we've got to make him pay."

Kaepernick showed his mettle against New England on Dec. 16. He riddled the Patriots for four touchdowns, including a huge one to Michael Crabtree to thwart the Patriots' huge second-half comeback.

"We came back when they were kind of breathing down our neck," Kaepernick said. "They closed the deficit. It was good for us to get that touchdown and secure the win."

In his seven starts, Kaepernick has had a passer rating of at least 100 on four occasions. The Niners are running most of the same plays, coach Mike McCarthy said, but the young quarterback is executing at a high level.

"I think Kaepernick is an outstanding young quarterback," McCarthy said. "He's been very impressive. Just had a chance to watch him play in his first start, then go down to New Orleans and just what he's done of late, too. He's gifted. He can make all the throws. He's a big athlete. You can see why he's playing."


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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.

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