Months after shredding Pack on ground, Colin Kaepernick takes to air
SAN FRANCISCO -- In January, in the playoffs, it was his legs that made the statement. On Sunday, at an unseasonably warm Candlestick Park, Colin Kaepernick used his strong and accurate right arm to send a message. But for the Green Bay Packers, the results were the same: Another back-to-the-drawing-board loss to the San Francisco 49ers. Different weapon, same spectacular quota of highlights from the 49ers' quarterback.
The Packers worked almost eight months on taking away the explosive, read-option running threat that Kaepernick posed in the NFC Divisional playoffs, when he shredded Green Bay's defense for 181 yards rushing -- a record for any quarterback, postseason or regular season -- in San Francisco's eye-opening 45-31 win.
The Packers had success in that respect on Sunday, with Kaepernick running just seven times for 22 yards, for a modest 3.1-yard average rush. But talk about your pyrrhic victories. Taking away that part of his game only seemed to fuel another part of his arsenal, and Kaepernick responded by carving up Green Bay for a career-best 412 yards passing and three touchdowns in San Francisco's 34-28 opening-week victory. (He threw for just 263 yards in the NFC Divisional game.) Though they were in the game the whole way, the Packers never really had an answer for the 49ers' passing game. Kaepernick's game set a team record -- no small feat in San Francisco -- for passing yardage in an opener, and was the 49ers' first 400-yard-plus passing day since Tim Rattay enjoyed one in October 2004.
"Really special performance by him,'' San Francisco head coach Jim Harbaugh said of his dual-threat quarterback, who last threw for 400 yards in a game as a University of Nevada freshman, against Louisiana Tech. "Some laser-like throws downfield. Pinpoint accuracy. Managing the chaos of the game. Never blinked. Never flinched at any time. Just kept executing.''
Kaepernick's heroics against Green Bay, of course, were a two-part story. His devastating day as a passer had an awful lot to do with the presence of his new No. 1 receiver, Anquan Boldin, the former Baltimore Raven who made his 49ers regular-season debut in unstoppable fashion. Boldin caught 13 passes for 208 yards and a touchdown, nearly matching the 10-catch, 217-yard, two-touchdown showing he posted against Detroit in his first-ever NFL regular-season game, as an Arizona Cardinals rookie in 2003 -- 10 years and one day ago. He owns two of the three season-opening 10-catch, 200-yard games in league history.
"They kept letting him get open, and he went out there and played like a grown man today,'' Kaepernick said of his new go-to target. "He made plays even when he shouldn't have. So if he plays like that, he's going to get the ball even more.''
That's a scary thought for every 49ers opponent the rest of the way in 2013. If there has been a better acquisition in recent NFL history than the 49ers giving Baltimore a sixth-round pick for Boldin's services this offseason, a Harbaugh-to-Harbaugh deal that looked like a peace offering to the vanquished 49ers coach, I don't remember it.
As 49ers Chief Executive Officer Jed York so succinctly put it, just outside the winning locker room: "Yeah, I think he's worth a sixth-round pick.''
Harbaugh unsurprisingly echoed his boss on that front. "It feels great to have him,'' he said of Boldin. "We did give up a draft choice for him, and are paying him a lot of money. But I definitely think he's worth every penny. He's worth every penny.''
The Packers came in determined to stop Kaepernick, but went home realizing they got only half the job done on that front, and completely failed to contain Boldin.
"Boldin had a hell of a day,'' Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said. "When they have a premier guy like that, especially someone that they're featuring, you have to take that away. We did not do that. He made the tough catches. There were a couple of plays where we had him doubled and he still made the plays. He had a big day today.''
Just as it was for the Ravens during their Super Bowl run last winter, when quarterback Joe Flacco and Boldin were locked in, the Kaepernick-to-Boldin combination was there every time the 49ers needed it on Sunday. Never more so than when San Francisco faced a 4th-and-2 from the Green Bay 36, with the 49ers clinging to a 31-28 lead and just three minutes remaining.
After first trying to draw the Packers offside, San Francisco called a timeout, and then called a play with Boldin as the primary receiver. At first he was covered on the short pattern, but he stayed alive and Kaepernick found him. The resulting 15-yard gain set up a much-needed 33-yard Phil Dawson field goal, and gave the 49ers a six-point cushion with just 26 seconds remaining.
"It was designed to be a quick-hitter right to Anquan in the flat, and Kap kept his poise, and kept moving,'' Harbaugh said. "Anquan did a great job of coming back inside and finding the soft spot in the defense and making the play.''
Kaepernick said the 49ers' decision on which part of their game to emphasize was easy. Green Bay prioritized taking away the read-option, so the 49ers took to the air. Boldin wasn't even the only problem the Packers had in coverage. Tight end Vernon Davis burned them for six catches for 98 yards, including touchdowns of 20 and 2 yards.
Even the Packers' over-aggressiveness to stop Kaepernick came back to bite them, when outside linebacker Clay Matthews was flagged for a late hit on the 49ers' quarterback on the Green Bay sideline. San Francisco left offensive tackle Joe Staley jumped to Kaepernick's defense and went at it with Matthews, drawing a flag that produced offsetting penalties.
The twin flags, referee Bill Leavy ruled, produced a replay of 3rd-and-6 from the Green Bay 10, and on the next play, Kaepernick found Boldin for a 10-yard scoring pass and a 14-7 49ers lead. After the game, Leavy admitted he blew the call, because the dead-ball foul should have resulted in a 4th-and-2 at the Packers' 6, which likely would have prompted a San Francisco field-goal attempt. Green Bay could have used those four points later in the game.
"We gave up too many big plays,'' Matthews said. "I have to give credit to the quarterback Kaepernick for making the plays when he needed to. I felt like we did a good job of keeping him contained and not letting him extend plays like they did in the playoff game, but he still made plays.''
Be it his legs or his arm, Kaepernick is proving he can make a defense pick its poison. And when Michael Crabtree returns from his ruptured Achilles tendon in November, the 49ers' offense should be even more lethal. Kaepernick didn't even sound satisfied with his gaudy opener, saying there were "more throws I should have made out there. That's something I have to get better at.''
The Packers probably don't care to dwell on that possibility. If they hope to get past the defending NFC champions in this season's playoffs, they're going to have to figure out how to contain Kaepernick both on the ground and through the air.
"He did exactly what we know he is capable of doing; exactly what he needed to do,'' Boldin said of Kaepernick. "I keep telling people how good of a quarterback he is. Everybody looks at how athletic he is, and says he's a running quarterback. But he's a quarterback first, and being able to run is just a bonus for him.''
After Sunday, if it even still existed, the idea of Kaepernick wearing a one-dimensional label is probably gone for good.