Colin Kaepernick traded his label as a running quarterback to lead the biggest comeback in National Football Conference championship game history and take the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl.
A week after setting a National Football League record with 181 yards rushing in San Francisco’s defeat of Green Bay, Kaepernick yesterday focused on throwing the football or handing it off as the 49ers advanced to the NFL’s championship game with a 28-24 win against the Atlanta Falcons.
With the win, Kaepernick, a second-year player from the University of Nevada, joined Hall of Famers Joe Montana and Steve Young in guiding San Francisco to the Super Bowl. Montana led the 49ers to four Super Bowl victories and Young to one more from 1982-1995.
“He just competes like a maniac all the time,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh told reporters at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. “In practice and in games, it’s always the same. When I look into his facemask, that’s what I see.”
Only two Super Bowl quarterbacks have had less experience than Kaepernick, 25, who has started nine NFL games including the two playoff wins. Jeff Hostetler led the New York Giants to a Super Bowl victory after the 1990 season with four regular-season starts, and Vince Ferragamo had started five games when St. Louis played in the Super Bowl after the 1979 season.
Born in Wisconsin, Kaepernick grew up in Turlock, California, a two-hour drive east of San Francisco, as the adopted son of parents who supported the Green Bay Packers. An all-around athlete, Kaepernick had a 95 mile-per-hour (153 kilometer-per-hour) fastball and turned down a baseball career to pursue football.
Young retired in 2000 and the 49ers went eight straight seasons without a playoff appearance from 2003-2010. The following year, Harbaugh, a former quarterback, was entering his first season as the team’s coach and suggested drafting Kaepernick. San Francisco traded up nine spots to select him with the 36th overall pick, making him the first quarterback taken in the second round.
Yesterday’s win at Atlanta, in which San Francisco rallied from a 17-0 deficit, validated the move, 49ers tackle Joe Staley said.
“He proved it with his play over the entire second half of the season,” Staley said in the 49ers’ locker room. “He’s stepped up big for us all season and I’m excited to go into this next game with him.”
With a victory over the Baltimore Ravens in New Orleans on Feb. 3, San Francisco would join the Pittsburgh Steelers as the only team with six Super Bowl wins.
Baltimore scored 21 unanswered points in a 28-13 defeat of the host New England Patriots in the American Football Conference championship game in Foxboro, Massachusetts. The Ravens are coached by John Harbaugh, Jim’s older brother.
Kaepernick, who won five of his seven regular-season starts after stepping in when Alex Smith suffered a concussion on Nov. 11, set an NFL quarterback record for the most rushing yards, eclipsing Michael Vick’s 2005 mark by 64 yards, in his first playoff game.
The performance led the Falcons to focus on trying to stop him, Jim Harbaugh and Kaepernick said. That opened up chances for him to throw the ball or hand it to running back Frank Gore, who ended the game with 90 yards rushing and two touchdowns on 21 carries.
“I’ll just keep giving it to him if he’s going to run like that,” Kaepernick said.
Kaepernick ran twice for 21 yards and completed 16 of 21 passes for 233 yards and a touchdown.
Draped in an oversized white NFC Champions T-shirt, Kaepernick spoke briefly in a postgame news conference before Gore joined him at the microphone.
“He leads us,” Gore said, cutting Kaepernick off in mid-sentence. “If it wasn’t for him, it would’ve been a tough game.”
The decision to keep Kaepernick as starter after Smith recovered drew criticism and led Harbaugh to defend the move almost every week. Smith had been the usual starter since San Francisco drafted him with the No. 1 pick in 2005.
Asked if reaching the Super Bowl validated his decision, Harbaugh said he was happy to win another trophy and credited his entire team for the victory.
While Kaepernick also refused to accept credit for his team’s turnaround, he did have some appreciative words for his coach.
“I’m just thankful he made that decision,” Kaepernick said.