Lowell Cohn: 49ers' Colin Kaepernick just finds ways to win games
Published: Wednesday, January 15, 2014 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 15, 2014 at 9:32 p.m.
SANTA CLARA — Colin Kaepernick is special.
Let's agree on that. OK? Let's call it our working hypothesis.
But how is he special? I mean, let's use our noodles to figure out this mystery — because it is a mystery. One of the good mysteries, like the Holy Trinity, one of the all-time best.
Kaepernick's stats are good but not great. We are talking quantifiable things. Take last Sunday against Carolina. You watched that game you came away thinking he was the star. But he completed only 15 passes. Which doesn't put him in the Peyton Manning category. His passer rating was 87.8. Pretty good. But you wouldn't compose an epic poem about it: “Colin Conquers Carolina.”
And yet he was a hero in the game. You saw the 45-yard pass he threw to Anquan Boldin. Third quarter, Boldin alone way down the field and the Panthers looking like the Eleven Stooges, the pass long and high and right on the money. The pass taking the Niners to the Panthers' goal line and then Kaepernick running around left end for the touchdown that really ended the game.
Kaepernick doing it.
Something about him transcends stats, although you can link Kaepernick to one overwhelmingly fascinating stat. Kaepernick has won three playoff games on the road. Atlanta last season, and Green Bay and Charlotte this season.
In the totality of his great 49ers' career, Steve Young won no road playoff games.
It makes your head spin, this disparity.
Let's do our due diligence, because we are serious about understanding football, and ask some of the concerned parties a direct question: What is the X-quality that makes Kaepernick special, that elevates him above mere numbers.
Jim Harbaugh: “Yes, A-plus in terms of intangibles. Poise. Big stage never seems to bother him. His leadership ability. Players love him. Coaches love him. Work ethic off the charts — A-plus-plus.”
Me: “When you say big games don't bother him, does he have the same composure, the same attitude in a big game like what's coming up as opposed to a regular-season game?”
Harbaugh: “Just noticed it even going back to college when I first started watching him — the big games, the big challenge, the big task — he has that special ability that the great ones have to elevate their game in those situations.”
Remember that phrase “the great ones,” because we'll mention one of them in a moment. Brett Favre.
But first, back to the concerned parties. Like Boldin, Boldin at the podium Wednesday talking about the Kaepernick X-quality:
“Well, he's just confident in his abilities. He doesn't waver. Even when you guys say bad things about him, he's still confident about getting his job done.”
Me: “What's his demeanor like in the huddle?”
Boldin: “He really doesn't change. If it's a bad play, if it's a big play, he doesn't change. He's always, 'Next play. Let's make it happen.'
Boldin's insight about the Kaepernick voice was interesting and so was his sharing the powerful phrase, “Next play.”
But Boldin was looking for a fight or trying to be rude, gratuitously doing one or both. “You guys” is the collective term for the media. It often translates as “you morons” or “you troublemakers.”
Excuse me, but this is Boldin's big week. Everyone was there to praise him. Why the need to fight? It makes you wonder if he and Kaepernick sit at their lockers grumbling about the “you guys.”
Lighten up, Anquan.
Back to the concerned parties. How about Kaepernick on Kaepernick — it sounds like a sandwich at the Carnegie Deli, corned beef on rye with extra spicy mustard, and a hot chili dressing on the side.
I asked if his demeanor changes before a big play. Is his tone emotional or the same as any other play?
Kaepernick: “Well, you never know what play in the game is going to be the big play, so you really can't change your tone before you know what's going to happen.”
Me: “Is your tone soft, matter of fact?”
Kaepernick: “Trying to win, whatever tone that is.”
This is what we learned from the concerned parties. Nothing bothers Kaepernick. Rises to the occasion. Keeps consistent demeanor. Treats every play with the same degree of commitment.
All that is interesting. And we're no closer to understanding what makes Kaepernick special.
Let's keep trying.
Kaepernick does bad things every game. You've been watching, right? Against the Panthers he threw one grounder. In every game, he will overthrow a receiver or launch one to a receiver's side. He never even tries to read the whole field. He's a one-read guy and, if the read isn't open, he becomes a dash-and-go guy.
Watching him louse up, his footwork sometimes awful, you want to smack yourself in the head.
But he wins. That's demonstrable. And he comes on late in games. And his coach is absolutely in love with him.
I'm saying there's an X-quality that defies definition. But maybe we can describe it. At least we can try to.
He carries in him an extra component, a rare component that defies coaching and contradicts — explodes? — the traditional notion of what an elite quarterback is.
A traditionalist like Trent Dilfer criticizes Kaepernick, although recently Dilfer verbally double-backed. For Dilfer and people like him, a great quarterback conforms to a certain definition, and if a quarterback does not adhere to that definition, he is not so special. Even if he keeps winning the big games.
To which I say, a professor at Stanford once told me about definitions. He said some literary critic might come up with a brilliant definition for a great play. You might look at the critic's definition and notice “Hamlet” doesn't conform and doesn't get on the list of great plays.
Not so, my professor said. You don't throw out “Hamlet.” You throw out the definition.
With Kaepernick, you throw out all definitions. You find new ones. Because he is new. He might be the best athlete ever to play quarterback in the NFL. In a certain way, he's like Favre when Favre was young. Favre did so many things wrong you wanted to smack yourself in the head. But he kept winning, definitions be damned.
Same for Kaepernick.
And that means — please pay attention — Kaepernick is involved in an entirely unique relationship. He is two guys, Good Colin and Bad Colin. Time after time, Good Colin saves Bad Colin from disaster. And the Niners win.
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