If you have followed the long career of Tom Brady, Sunday didn’t come as any kind of a shock. The New England Patriots quarterback of the past 13 seasons may be knocking on a bit but his record-breaking playoff victory was about the easiest pick of the weekend’s games.
Brady won his 17th playoff game, breaking his boyhood idol Joe Montana’s mark in the process. But as I marvelled at Brady’s latest nod to the record books, I also couldn’t help but wonder if Colin Kaepernick might be the guy who comes along in another 12 years and does to Brady what Brady has just done to Montana.
And if he does, will the Green Bay Packers end up feeling the same sort of pain experienced by San Francisco 49ers fans over Brady?
Brady was born and raised in California, a fan of the 49ers and of Montana, but his incredible success since he was drafted in 2000 has all been for the Patriots, and largely in years where the 49ers have struggled and have been all round the houses trying to find a quarterback to fill the large shoes left by Montana and his successor, Steve Young.
Kaepernick is the latest occupant of that jersey and if Saturday night’s masterclass while dispatching the Packers from this year’s playoffs is anything to go by, the Red and Gold have found their man, one born not far from Green Bay, in Milwaukee, who grew up wanting to play for the Packers or 49ers.
Green Bay, of course, are well set at QB, with Aaron Rodgers in the chair for a few years yet but there may be others who will start asking themselves questions if Kaepernick has just given us a glimpse of a glorious future. After all, every team in the league with the exception of Oakland passed up the chance to take him in the first round of the 2011 draft, in a year that could end up being a vintage one for quarterbacks, coming close to matching 1983.
Back then, six QBs were taken in the first round when there were just 28 teams in the league. In 2011, Kaepernick was taken in the second round with the 36th pick and became the sixth passer taken that year. However, when you consider that those who were taken ahead of him were Cam Newton, Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder, and Andy Dalton, there were obvious reasons why Kaepernick had to wait a while. In many cases, those choices would have been too close to call and already, Newton and Dalton are Pro Bowlers.
Kaepernick hasn’t scaled that mountain yet but on Saturday night he played his first playoff game and already has his first significant playoff record, running for 181 yards, more yards in one game than any QB has rushed for in playoff history.
But when coaching staffs sit down and plan their draft strategy, it isn’t always about numbers. Yes, they eliminate people at a base level simply on size or speed or any number of other measurables but once they have a group left from which they need to start making decisions, it is often the things that cannot be measured on a scale or a chart that come to make the difference. As often as not it can be a gut feeling they get from a young man when they sit him down and talk to him, and that applies most especially with quarterbacks. The content of his character can tell them a lot.
I wonder how San Francisco – and a few others – felt when they put Kaepernick in a room and got him to open up prior to that draft two years ago because his story is inspiring to the point where you just want to root for the guy and hope he makes it.
His teenage mother, Heidi Russo, came from difficult circumstances and offered her son up for adoption in order for him to find a better start in life than she was going to be able to provide. She asked just three things of the family that took him – siblings, financially stable, and a sports background. Maybe a mother’s intuition was telling her something.
Maybe she passed that on to her son as well because by the time he was nine years old, Kaepernick already knew what he wanted to do. In a school exercise where he was required to write a letter to his future self, he said: “I’m 5-2, 91 lbs and a good athlete. I think in seven years I will be between 6ft to 6-4, 140 lbs. I hope I go to a good college in football, then go to the pros and play on the Niners or the Packers, even if they aren’t good in seven years.”
I will guarantee you any NFL coaching staff hearing that story two years ago would have heard that line “even if they aren’t any good in seven years” and liked the sound of that. At an early age, Kaepernick was already showing a lack of ego. He liked the teams from his birthplace and from his home and didn’t think he needed to play on a successful team in order to be happy.
Then, when he was in college at Nevada, he showed promise as a baseball pitcher, so much so that he was selected in the 43rd round of the MLB draft by the Chicago Cubs. He was offered $30,000 to go to camp in Arizona and show what he had (including a 94mph fastball) but he was already preparing for his senior year at Nevada and turned down the offer, saying: “What would it say about me as a leader of the team?”
At this point, I can only imagine how excited some NFL coaches would have been getting. A guy with all the physical talent they could want, who had already shown that he had a cannon for an arm and who was a threat in the air and on the ground. He is, after all, the only man in college football history to finish his career with more than 10,000 yards passing and more than 4,000 yards rushing.
So, when Kaepernick stepped into the starting role this year, I would imagine the people least surprised to see him handle it were Jim Harbaugh and his coaching staff. When he broke Steve Young’s club record for the longest run for a QB not once but twice in the regular season, I would imagine the people least surprised to see him do it were Jim Harbaugh and his coaching staff.
And when he took to the field on Saturday night and ripped the Packers to shreds, I would imagine Harbaugh and Co simply smiled and thought ‘what’s the big deal, that’s what we expected’.
We like to take a dim view of NFL players on occasion and over the years, plenty of them have given us reason to do so. In Ray Lewis, I wrote about a prime example last week.
But in Colin Kaepernick, we are watching a young man develop into a fine player, one who has clearly been shaped and defined by his upbringing and the character within. The stories about him and his birth mother – and the fact he has so far declined to meet her – will go on but people should take their opinion on what is a highly-charged personal issue and shove them where the sun don’t shine. That is his concern and nobody else’s until he decides to make it public.
For now, he has at least one more game to play this season and perhaps two glorious wins to come. Whatever happens in those one or two games, one thing appears certain – the long wait by San Francisco fans for the man to pick up the legacy of Montana and Young is finally over.
Coaches are paid to make decisions and on Sunday night, with the Super Bowl just 60-odd minutes away, John Fox made one that will be second-guessed for years to come.
The screw-up in the Denver secondary that allowed Baltimore to tie the game with 31 seconds to play was a horrible one to watch. It was thrilling for us fans because of the drama and the fact it sent the game to double overtime.
But for Denver supporters, what happened in the following few seconds will be talked about for a long time.
Denver took over at their own 30-yard line with half a minute to play and with Peyton Manning at quarterback, the same Peyton Manning who has been one of the greats of his generation, a Super Bowl champion, a multiple record holder, one of the great on-field improvisers of the past 15 years.
But rather than put the game in Manning’s hands to see if he could come up with the two decent completions the Broncos would need to put them in field goal range to win the game with the last kick, Fox chose to have Manning take a knee, run out the clock and take his chances in overtime.
In days gone by, that would not have happened because prior to the recent rule change on overtime possessions, any head coach would have known that they would have to run the risk of losing the overtime coin toss, and then watch the opposition march downfield and kick a field goal without the other team ever possessing the ball.
Today, with the two-team possession rule, Fox knew that even if Baltimore had the ball first and scored, he would still get a chance to put the game in Manning’s hands. And that was what he chose to do. In some ways, it was more of a brave call than trying to get downfield in the final 31 seconds of regulation because if you kneel down and then lose in overtime, you are open to attack. And that is exactly what happened when Justin Tucked booted Denver out of the playoffs in the second period of overtime.
Had Fox gone for it in the fourth quarter and Manning had been intercepted, allowing Baltimore to win without overtime, fans would have said he should have knelt down and taken his chances in overtime rather than risking things. It is probably fair to say that Fox couldn’t really win. He had to make his decision and stick with it and I can respect that. Who would want to be in that position?
However, I still can’t help feeling that the whole argument is settled – in my non-coach’s mind at least – by this simple fact. In the final 31 seconds you at least have an opportunity. If you take it and blow it, at least you had a go. If you don’t take it and still lose, surely you are left with the emptiness of never knowing. And I, for one, would always want to know.