ATLANTA – He is just a kid, really. Watch Colin Kaepernick in the San Francisco 49ers' locker room – his face twisted into a silly grin, head bobbing, laughing as if going to the Super Bowl is something you always do. Like this is all a game. Like life is too easy at age 25.
Niners coach Jim Harbaugh named him the starting quarterback back in November when starter Alex Smith was out with a concussion. Then Harbaugh never looked back. And imagine that, having someone hand you the keys to the best team in the NFC, one that came two fumbled punts from the Super Bowl last year, and saying that you will be the difference. Especially when you had never previously started a game in the NFL.
The team's center Jonathan Goodwin couldn't believe it when Harbaugh picked Kaepernick. Goodwin, in the league since 2002, said he had never seen a team do such a thing. But on Sunday evening, after the NFC championship trophy had been presented to the 49ers following a 28-24 victory over the Atlanta Falcons and all the players had shouted and whooped and cried, Goodwin stood in front of his locker, staring at Kaepernick pulling off his shoulder pads. He shook his head.
"That's why I'm the player and he's the coach," Goodwin said of Harbaugh.
Yeah, they were all a little surprised, though they'll never admit it now. Deep down they know that kid, who would look more 19 than 25 were it not for the tattoos that spill across his chest and shoulders and arms, saved them this season. Because, come on, would they have beaten the Packers last week without him? Not without those 181 rushing yards.
And does anyone really think San Francisco wins this NFC championship game if Kaepernick isn't out there freezing the Atlanta linebackers, making them think he might run even when the play wasn't designed to be an option? Once the Niners adjusted to the noise in the Georgia Dome on Sunday, their offense ran smoothly. He finished with 233 passing yards and one touchdown. Were it not for a missed field goal and a fumble on the goal line, the 49ers would have won by 14 points. It's hard to imagine Alex Smith beating the Falcons by 14 points.
The 49ers' coaches threw a lot at Kaepernick before Sunday's game. They knew that the Packers' win and those 181 rushing yards exposed a side of his game that the Falcons would try to control. They knew, too, that inside the Dome with the ear-splitting roar, Atlanta's defense would be extra aggressive. They expected the Falcons' pass rushers to come storming at him.
So during the week they gave him a lot to consider. They filled his playbook with dozens of different options – defenses to assess and recognize – adjustments to make, new plays to call. Goodwin guessed the kid switched plays maybe as much as 50 percent of the time on Sunday. That's a lot to handle as the play clock trickles down and the crowd gets louder and the Falcons' safeties creep closer, closer, closer to the line. And he amazed the Niners by how simple he made it look, how quickly he got the play changed, how fast it all was.
Long after Kaepernick had dressed and left, Geep Chryst, the team's quarterback's coach, stood in an empty coaches locker room and laughed.
"There's 52 cards in a deck and he has them all," Chryst said. It was a joking reference to the depth of options the coaches gave their young quarterback and how well he used them. But just as easily he could have been referring to all the ways Kaepernick can seemingly win games – by throwing long, throwing short and running.
And yet how does this kid who never even played in a big bowl game before this year handle the mountain of plays and choices his coaches dumped on top of him? Chryst smiled.
"I think he's just wired that way," the coach said.
Clearly, the 49ers are better with Kaepernick. It's as Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon was saying in the other locker room when asked how Kaepernick ranks with all the other young mobile quarterbacks that became the rage of the league this season.
"Well to my recollection there's only one mobile quarterback left playing, so you tell me," Weatherspoon said.
On Sunday night, folks wouldn't leave the kid alone. As he tried to pull off his T-shirt and head to the shower, someone new kept appearing in his face. A radio man with a cell phone and a live national feed. A man with his son. People from the front office. People from no one even knows where. And the kid never lost his silly grin. He shook all their hands. He looked them in the eye. He told them he's happy to see them.
But they should also shake the hand of the man next to him, the one with the cross tattooed on his back. Everyone's ignored Alex Smith ever since Kaepernick went and took his job, yet no one might have done more to get the kid prepared than Smith. Chryst knows. He sees it in the meetings – those tiny cloistered sessions where it's just Chryst, Smith, Kaepernick and maybe two other quarterbacks. He's watched Smith push Kaepernick to be better. They study plays together, they identify defenses together. When Kaepernick is unsure of something, Smith is instantly there.
"I think Alex is wired that way too," Chryst said.
Then he paused.
"No one wanted to win this game more than Alex," Chryst said. "It's who Alex is."
"It's a unique gift that Alex has given to Colin," he said.
And they all rode it to the Super Bowl. By Sunday night even Alex Smith's biggest fans had to know Harbaugh did the right thing in November. The kid looked around the room and soaked in their euphoria. He didn't say much. Never really does. When someone asked if he had justified Harbaugh's decision, the silly smile lingered on his face.
"I'm just thankful he made that decision," Kaepernick said.
On the night he took the 49ers to the Super Bowl, the other men in the room were thankful too. It was simply the right thing to do.
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