Colin Kaepernick could revolutionize the quarterback position in pro football. His speed is more explosive than that of most NFL tailbacks, and he slings the ball downfield with the velocity of a ninth-inning closer. Last week, Kaepernick looked like the super-quarterback that coaches had once dreamed Randall Cunningham, Daunte Culpepper and Michael Vick would become.
But the second-year quarterback needs to be careful as the 49ers prepare for Sunday’s NFC Championship Game against the Atlanta Falcons. Kaepernick’s challenge this week could be trickier than the Falcons’ defense: He can’t allow success to go to his head.
This is a dangerous moment for Kaepernick, because his record-setting performance against the Green Bay Packers on Saturday brought the great quarterback debate of 2012 to a screeching conclusion. But the 49ers are no closer to winning the Vince Lombardi Trophy than they were at this point last season.
As exciting as Kaepernick is on the field, he’s usually as stiff as a statue when he confronts the media. But he came out of his shell Saturday, flapping his jaw at the Packers’ defense and picking up a taunting penalty for spiking the ball in the face of safety M.D. Jennings.
Of course, in a league where players are known to pull Sharpies out of their socks to celebrate touchdowns, this infraction is about as egregious as a parking ticket.
No one can question Kaepernick’s character. He’s the type of person coach Jim Harbaugh loves to bring into his locker room: humble, hardworking and selfless. But even the most grounded person can be momentarily seduced by the charms of ego when their trademark celebration stirs a national craze (see “Kaepernicking”).
Earlier in the season, Kaepernick told reporters: “I’m here to play football ... I don’t pay attention to what the media is writing or what people are saying.”
But he struck the opposite chord after his breakout performance last Saturday, saying: “I feel like I had a lot to prove. A lot of people doubted my ability to lead this team.”
His statement was completely appropriate, but the shift is a sign of self-satisfaction, which could dull the competitive edge. Kaepernick clearly silenced the critics in his first postseason game, but the hill he’s climbing will only get steeper as the 49ers advance through the playoffs.
The line between confidence and overconfidence is especially fine when success begins to pour down. It’s human nature. As soon as you think you’ve solved the puzzle, life will humble you again, and the NFL is a particularly humbling enterprise — just ask Peyton Manning.
Against the Falcons this week, Kaepernick is making just his ninth career start. And while he’s equipped with all the tools to become a great NFL quarterback, he is fallible, just like Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees. At some point, he will stumble.
But Kaepernick is in good hands with Harbaugh. If any coach is equipped with the motivational skills to put an athlete in the mindset to brush Freddy P. Soft off his shoulders, it’s him.
The 49ers are in a good position to advance to their first Super Bowl since the glory days this Sunday. Kaepernick just needs to remember that he hasn’t won anything yet.
Paul Gackle is a regular contributor to The San Francisco Examiner and also writes at www.gacklereport.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @GackleReport.