Colin Kaepernick offers the big play potential that can push the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl. Head coach Jim Harbaugh's team missed that capability in last year's playoffs.
Harbaugh's decision to insert Kaepernick ahead of incumbent Alex Smith, naturally provoked some controversy. After all, Smith had posted a more than respectable 104.1 rating as the starter. However, Smith was efficient, rather than dynamic. In fact his impressive rating owed much to his average of only eight yards a completion. Smith was relying on safe, steady plays.
They worked in 2011, as a complement to a bruising running game and a suffocating defense. Yet that formula would only ever take the 49ers so far. In order to take that crucial last step, San Francisco needed to pose more of a downfield, game-breaking threat to opposing teams.
Kaepernick's skill set has naturally expanded the offense. It starts with a passing game that is noticeably more vertical, since the second-year pro took over. Kaepernick has greater arm strength than Smith offers and the results have been obvious.
Kaepernick has averaged 8.3 yards per pass attempt. In only seven starts, he has exceeded Smith's 1,737 yards from nine games. Kaepernick has thrown for 1,814 yards. With Kaepernick launching longer throws, the 49ers are running deeper patterns. That better suits players like Michael Crabtree and Randy Moss. It also means the 49ers don't always have to rely on laboured, 10-15 play drives to score.
That kind of approach can often lead to mistakes, especially come playoff time. The niners' divisional round opponent, the Green Bay Packers do possess a defense that is opportunistic, rather than physically dominant. The secondary is filled with young ball hawks like rookie Casey Hayward, so Kaepernick will have to protect the ball or score quickly.
Niether should be a problem for a player who has thrown just three interceptions and can stretch a defense in more than one way. Kaepernick's ability to make plays with his feet can also lead to plenty of big plays. Defensive backs like Hayward, can't anticipate his throws the same way they can with a pocket passer.
When Kaepernick out manoeuvres pressure and keeps plays going, pass defenders are challenged to stay with their receivers for longer and not split focus. If they do, big gains are open down the field.
Kaepernick's rushing skills also give the 49ers a way of keeping defensive coordinators guessing and freezing defenders at the line of scrimmage. He has rushed for 415 yards and five scores this season. The ex-Nevada star combines nifty moves and excellent initial quickness, with a loping stride and deceptive strength.
With Kaepernick under center, playoff opponents won't be able to simply key on punishing runner Frank Gore. That's bad news for a Packers' run defense that ranked 17th during the regular season, yielding 118.5 yards per game.
Kaepernick gives the 49ers a greater quick-strike capability. That could be invaluable for a team that was only one or two big plays short of last season's Super Bowl. His big play potential can pile up more points for San Francisco's ferocious defense to protect.
That potent combination can take the Bay Area powerhouse to their sixth Super Bowl appearance.