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49ers: A new and future king

In just a half of an season, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has become the face of the franchise's return to elite status in the NFL. For diehard fans, he represents a return to the heady days of Joe Montana and Steve Young.

KENT PORTER / The Press Democrat
Published: Saturday, February 2, 2013 at 8:54 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, February 2, 2013 at 8:54 p.m.

NEW ORLEANS — Starting at 3:30 p.m. Sunday, the San Francisco 49ers will play in a Super Bowl for the first time in 18 years. And for the sixth time, they enter football's biggest game with a dynamic, game-altering quarterback at the center of it all.

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In just a half of an season, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has become the face of the franchise's return to elite status in the NFL. For diehard fans, he represents a return to the heady days of Joe Montana and Steve Young.

KENT PORTER / The Press Democrat

Colin Kaepernick intends to extend the undefeated Super Bowl history established by Joe Montana and Steve Young with a mesmerizing style that has the NFL buzzing.

With no disrespect to Ray Lewis, the Baltimore Ravens all-world linebacker who will be playing in the final game of his 17-year career, Kaepernick is the talk of the Super Bowl. And he doesn't even talk.

OK, he does speak. But if you want anything beyond comment on his tattoos and a few clichés, call the CIA. Kaepernick has taken to heart the blandness cues that flow from coach Jim Harbaugh. And whether he intends it or not, Kaepernick has made himself more interesting by keeping the book on himself closed. In fact, it is a very small book.

First chapter has four words: I don't feel pressure.

Second chapter has four words: God gives me strength.

And the third and final chapter has nine words: I don't care if people approve of my tattoos.

Despite enduring two weeks in the center of the white-hot Superbowl media frenzy, Kaepernick remains somewhat of an enigma. He's very smart, having scored 37 on the Wonderlic intelligence test administered by the NFL (the average is 20). He's independent minded, having tuned down Dartmouth so he could play football at Nevada. And he's devout, having adorned his body with religious-themed tattoos.

In an era when professional athletes take self-promotion to a most conspicuous level — Ray Lewis' “squirrel” dance comes to mind — Kaepernick refuses to use the game's glamour position as a bully pulpit. He is content to let others speak for him.

“The only thing Colin Kaepernick has to worry about,” said Hall of Fame tight end Shannon Sharpe, “is whether he's going to hit his head on the goal post crossbar after he scores a touchdown.”

It seems impossible to find a football expert who will offer a flaw in the 25-year-old's game. They just wait, like the rest of us, to see how high his star rises. He has started barely half a season in the NFL, yet has the fan base spinning to the dazzling possibilities. They see a potential franchise icon, the next 49ers quarterback to win a Super Bowl and in a few years a ticket to Canton, home of the hall of fame.

Such is the tide of acclaim washing up at the feet of this NFL neophyte. Even if it's premature.

“I love watching him,” said former Cal and Niners coach Steve Mariucci. “But remember, Colin has started just nine games in the league. To be considered a great, elite quarterback, Colin has to do this over a period.”

Forty-Niners fans are more than happy to jump the gun. Mariucci knows from first-hand experience about the 49er Faithful being an impatient lot, now more than ever, having gone almost two decades without a Super Bowl trophy. They want their savior, someone with Joe's and Steve's skills, and they want him now. They believe they have found him, and few people disagree.

“He can be the best quarterback in the NFL,” said ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski, who was a NFL quarterback for 16 years, most of it with Philadelphia.

“Colin can be as good as he wants to be,” said 49ers tackle Joe Staley.

“He tells me he is just getting started,” said ex-Patriot linebacker Willie McGinest, now a CBS analyst. “And that's just scary.”

Scary because none of the experts said Kaepernick has reached the ceiling of performance. All are curious. What's next? How high can he go? What can he do that he hasn't done — which seems like something you would say of a 10-year veteran, not a second-year player with nine starts under his belt.

“For me the most important thing I saw, the thing that won me over about him was when I saw him slide,” said ex-Raider defensive tackle Warren Sapp, who was voted into the NFL Hall of Fame on Saturday.

As compliments go this appears unimpressive. Of course a quarterback should slide when he's about to meet a crippling tackle.

“Nothing drives a defense crazy,” Sapp said, “like a quarterback who slides. He's got a gain, a first down, and then slides. That taught me a lot because Colin realizes how important he is to the offense and he's not going to take unnecessary chances.”

Kaepernick has spent the first nine full games of his NFL career with questions hovering over him. Could he win on the road (New England) in December? He did. Could he rally his team on the road from a 17-0 deficit (Atlanta) in a pressure-packed situation (NFC title game)? He did. Could he win inside a dome (New Orleans)? He did. Could he win his very first start, which came on Monday Night Football (Bears)? Yes, he did

“What he's done,” Sharpe said, “you're just not supposed to do.”

You're not supposed to take a team over from a quarterback, Alex Smith, who was playing the best football of his career, who was providing no reason to lose the job. You're not supposed to do it with the season more than halfway gone. You're supposed to listen to Kurt Warner, a quarterback who won a Super Bowl.

“When you are playing in your 11th week of the season,” Warner said at the time about the coaching decision, “you don't start playing 'potential.' Potential is what the pre-season is about. This is a mistake.”

Nine games later Warner admits Kaepernick has won him over.

“Colin is so dynamic,” said Warner, who was with St. Louis when he won the 1999 Super Bowl. “He is a big reason why the 49ers are where they are.”

Sapp views the young quarterback as the complete package. “You see his arm, you see his legs, you see his humbleness, you see his calmness in making decisions,” he said, shrugging.

Mariucci, though, offered a note of caution amid the sea of effusiveness. “You just know,” Mariucci said, “that in the off-season ... people are going to work on that read option” offense that Kaepernick runs so well.

His point is that football adjusts and adapts. No one wants to be embarrassed by a kid, even if he has the gift. You can bet the Packers and Patriots and Bears and Saints will be working on stopping Colin Kaepernick.

And Kaepernick knows it, too, but he exudes not a hint of uncertainty. One of his tattoos is from Psalm 18:39, a favorite.

“The verse says,” Kaepernick noted, “'You arm me with strength for battle. You make my adversaries bow at my feet.'”

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