SAN FRANCISCO – Quarterback Colin Kaepernick was virtually perfect, except at the start.But that worked out perfectly for San Francisco.
The lone blemish on Kaepernick's overwhelming performance came on the very first series of San Francisco's dominant 45-31 win over Green Bay in the divisional round of the NFC playoffs Saturday night at Candlestick Park. As Kaepernick dropped to pass, he first looked right, only to see wide receiver Michael Crabtree fall after making a cut.
Kaepernick then looked left and forced a pass into double coverage that Green Bay's Sam Shields snagged and returned 52 yards for a 7-0 lead. It's fair to say that many 49ers fan were probably ruing coach Jim Harbaugh's decision to replace Alex Smith with Kaepernick at that moment.
Sitting in his seat, Rick Kaepernick, Colin's father, had a different point of view. In a twisted way, the elder Kaepernick knew his son had Green Bay right where he wanted them:
In the younger Kaepernick's now-angry sights.
"I know how he gets when stuff like that happens," Rick Kaepernick said after the game in the players parking lot. "I know how mad he gets, how focused."
What the 49ers got from that moment on was one of the better performances from a quarterback in playoff history. From the running of Michael Vick to the precision strikes of Aaron Rodgers (the man Kaepernick outclassed in every way) to the on-the-move touch passes of Joe Montana, Kaepernick was some hybrid of greatness.
When it was over, Kaepernick set an NFL QB playoff record with 181 yards rushing, including untouched touchdown runs of 20 and 56 yards. He also completed 17 of 31 passes for 263 yards and two touchdowns to Crabtree. In all, he helped the 49ers pile up 579 yards of total offense, including 323 yards on the ground.
Kaepernick was so thoroughly dominant that even Green Bay players and executives were, in their own way, appreciative. It was almost as if they could do nothing but salute what they had just seen.
"That was unbelievable," Green Bay General Manager Ted Thompson said. "He did everything. I mean, I had read the press clippings and seen some of the highlights. But to watch what he did … oh my, that was special."
"You have to tip your hat sometimes when a guy like that at the quarterback position is consistently out running and flanking your defense and making huge plays," Green Bay defensive tackle B.J. Raji said.
To put it another way, the 49ers beat Green Bay at the Packers game. Coming into this, the feeling was that if the Packers made this a high-scoring game, San Francisco would be forced out of its defense-oriented game and the young Kaepernick, who was making only his eighth start, would be susceptible to the pressure.
Even the 49ers themselves felt that. After Shields' interception, 49ers tight end Vernon Davis admitted to concern.
"I was watching him," Davis said. "Guys in that situation have a tendency to curl up when something like that happens. He didn't. He kept his head up."
More to the point, Kaepernick came back with the kind of vengeance his father has seen so many times as a youngster growing up in California's Central Valley.
"I know I didn't feel so good, but I knew exactly what his reaction would be," Rick Kaepernick said. "I've seen it so many times, whether it was football or baseball or basketball or even playing chess or dominos. You beat him at something, he's coming back at you with everything he has."
When asked about the interception, the glib Kaepernick said only that, "I had to bounce back."
More like pounce back.
What Kaepernick has is a stunning array of skills. On his 56-yard run, he dashed past five Green Bay defenders, even pulling away from star safety Charles Woodson at the end. His 20-yard touchdown pass to Crabtree in the first half was a tracer bullet delivered to the perfect spot. In the second half, he floated a 44-yard touch pass to Davis in the absolute perfect spot.
Kaepernick was even better in the most pressurized situations. Facing third-and-10 on the second series, Kaepernick scrambled left and then hit Frank Gore in stride for a 25-yard gain. Three plays later on third-and-8, Kaepernick scrambled for a 20-yard touchdown. In the second quarter, facing third-and-goal from the 12, Kaepernick patiently waited for Crabtree to come free on an option route for a touchdown.
Overall, the 49ers converted eight of 13 third-down situations. That's excellent in a regular season game. In the playoffs a year ago with Smith at the helm over two games, the 49ers converted only five of 28 third downs. Still, when Kaepernick replaced Smith this season, there were plenty of people who criticized the decision as far too risky.
Of course, none of this was without strong design. San Francisco made its most extensive use of the "Pistol" formation Saturday, the same offense Kaepernick used when he played in college at Nevada.
San Francisco offensive coordinator Greg Roman said the 49ers intentionally didn't use the Pistol in the season finale against Arizona and barely used it against Seattle in the previous game. When asked if they used the formation between 40 and 50 percent of the time on Sunday, Roman said, "Probably more than that."
The goal of the formation is to play shotgun without showing any tendencies, which forces the defense to protect more of the field. Throw in all the read-option running ability of Kaepernick and you have a nightmare for a defense.
"We didn't use it against the Cardinals because we wanted people to think we weren't going to use it," Roman said. "We worked on it a lot this week. A lot of practice."
And as practice can do, sometimes it leads to perfection.
Even if the game doesn't necessarily start that way.
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