Deconstructing Colin

Colin Kaepernick pensive, brooding, but unaware?

Be it home or away, there’s no team the 49ers would rather start or finish a season with than Green Bay (sorry, the couplet was unintentional).

Porous secondary notwithstanding, the last two weeks of the regular season the 49ers played their best all-around football since last season’s NFC divisional and championship rounds. This year’s campaign, especially the latter third of the first half on into the first three games after the bye, had been a mostly lackluster venture showcasing the growing pains of a third-year quarterback who many — at least many ESPN Magazine readers — felt suffered from the dual-edged sword of overexposure and underperformance; not to mention, plenty of brevity but lack of briefs.

The latter half of the season featured an outstanding twist, the merger of old-time, hard-nosed up-the-gut football, setting veteran running back Frank Gore’s metronome back to the steady tick, tick, tick that is the heartbeat of the offense’s clock-munching formula congruous with the demise of the Read Option.

The extra minutes off the clock (49ers’ time of possession increased by nearly 50 percent in the second half of the season) on offense may have literally breathed new life into the sometimes sputtering, rehab-worthy and mostly inconsistent first-half defensive effort.

Suddenly, defensive end Aldon Smith seems to have tackled his demons as if they were skill players in the backfield. His mentor and counterpart, Justin Smith, has found a late-season fountain of youth. Linebacking corps All Pro NaVorro Bowman, Ahmad Brooks and the game’s best, Patrick Willis, are the most dominant trio in the game since the Bears’ Mike Singletary, Otis Wilson and Wilbur Marshall shuffled their way to 15-1 and a Super Bowl championship in 1985.

Fresh faces in the secondary, namely Eric Reid, the free safety rookie phenom with plenty of endearing holes in his game, shore up a blink-and-you-may-get-called-for-PI-corps. While most defensive units seem to hone their playmaking abilities in late-season, in the penultimate and final game of the season, the 49ers allowed 755 passing yards, the most in consecutive games since 2005. They also allowed 11 completions of 20 yards or more, a team first.

Injuries to the secondary factored in was well. The last-minute addition of DB Perrish Cox, the former 49er who spent the season with division nemesis Seattle, who was released at the season’s end and re-signed by the 49ers to spell the injured Carlos Rogers (hamstring) was a boon.

If there is solace traveling down tobacco road to face their next foe, it is that Carolina QB Cam Newton is loath to air it out (though that may change in film this week.) Cox, as it turns out, learned a thing or two from Seattle’s now-legendary dirty-when-you’re-not-looking secondary and played mostly shut-down defense against Aaron Rodgers’ air attack in Lambeau.

Rodgers’ nightcap Sunday was his second back after missing seven games with a broken left (non-throwing side) collarbone. Prior to earning a playoff home game, he threw for 318 yards and two touchdowns in a loser-books-a-tee-time 33-28 victory over the Bears.

But there’s just no way to corner around the Kaepernick problem, or lack thereof, when he decides to put away the Beats headphones and perform. The Jock from Turlock, The Leader of the WAC comes prepared from the locker room, (including wearing his playbook wrist strap cheat sheet) and the 49ers advance. Dance around like a wounded gazelle and hang out routes out like Christmas stockings and the red and gold go home to try on skinny jeans for the Gold Rush Girls in heady anticipation of moving into the house that denim built in Santa Clara.

Kaepernick has never flashed signs of meanness or unlikability outside the lines but he has shown pensiveness and reluctance this season and his smile, so warmly embraced last year, now seems distant as the Beyonce Bowl Blackout — solely reserved for teammates and, on occasion, the head coach. His commanding, if not still a bit sheepish and awkward physical presence makes him relatable to fans, and — perhaps more importantly for the future of the league and its endorsement-heavy mandate — children.

This year, an almost predictable terseness with the press combined with his lack of ability to say no to any endorsement this side of a Trojan campaign “I bang a lot of hos on the road, that’s why I carry Trojans for my horse”* rippled his image thanks to the baggy khaki-clad scribe sect. It seems he went into training camp armed with Bartlett’s Familiar Athletes Cliches and a poker face so dour, the only thing readable about the third-year play caller was inked on his biceps and forearms.

Which is why, unapologetically and unironically, on the seventh-coldest game ever played in Green Bay and in the coldest in 49ers’ history (minus 10 with wind chill or cold enough to make Erin Andrews and her double braid more closely resemble Margot Kidder shivering in Superman’s palace than the Lolita of Lambeau/the Heidi of Hut Hut Hike that she was going for), Colin Kaepernick calmly mounted a pair of fourth-quarter scoring drives and left the mop up for the W to kicker Phil Dawson who legged up a 33-yarder good as time expired.

The loping line drive cut true through the Wisconsin night winter air, a little hook and the game would’ve taken a Norwoodian turn wide right and into overtime. Instead, the straight-forward 49ers advanced to the much warmer-in-theory confines of B of A Stadium for the divisional round next Sunday.

Kaepernick the man, in his struggle with identity and his early season uroboros, is still reflected in his inability to check down or take off out of the pocket in a timely fashion. Yet 98 yards on the ground Sunday displays that sometimes it only takes a date with Green Bay to showcase the inevitable.

Even in his darkest in-game moment, serving up an easy pick to Green Bay cornerback Tramon Williams in the middle of the second quarter, Kaep lowered his shoulder and throttled Williams, shielding the young QB from transgressions of just a moment ago.

This is the quarterback’s implicit wisdom in one play: his digressions transfer immediately to from bitter mistakes to mere talking points. “We can understand it, but it’s still just a little bit tougher to get him down on the ground,” Williams said post-game, not addressing the hit but Kaep’s complete skill set. “He still broke the pocket. We gave him some different looks, sent some blitzes at him, sent in some zones and put a lot of eyes on him. But he just found the time to make the throw and make the run.”

On the 49ers’ final three scoring drives, the quarterback who rushed for 181 yards in last season’s playoff win over Green Bay, set up scores with runs of 42, 24 and 11 yards, but in the end, it was Kaep’s passing for 227 yards and a touchdown which outshone his work on the ground. Combined, it was the fifth-highest total by a quarterback in postseason history. On the game-winning drive, he converted a 3rd-and-10 with a 17-yard pass to Michael Crabtree (eight receptions, 125 yards) “We’ve been down before and come back,” he said. “Ultimately at the end of the game, you have to perform to win.”

Kaepernick decided on the final drive to repeat the performance of the 49ers final regular season win in Arizona — down to Dawson kicking to the exact final score, 23-20. He seems to find comfortable repetition making commonplace last-minute feats, vanquishing the word “heroics” as the descriptor.

And so, if true adulthood is the onset of self-consciousness or at least self-awareness garnished with doubt, Kaepernick is far from grown up. To see his legs churn on a game-defining third and eight with less than ninety seconds on the clock and out of reasonable field goal range, he knows his limits are only bound by his physical stature; and that, even in the presence of mortal giants, only seems to grow in time to time running out.

Running back Gore as elder statesman knows his career ticks down in time with the game clock, Kaepernick, the foil, plays as if his time is limitless. Philosophically, a true vindicator for a boy who still forgets to suit all the way up at halftime.

*Not an actual campaign. Though it does give one pause, why isn’t there a condom company with professional athletes as spokespersons: “Pro-phylactics — when the game is on the line and you absolutely have to perform.” “Pro-phylactics — don’t get called for goaltending.” “Pro-phylactics — because you don’t always need to score …to score.” “Pro-phylactics — because you’re a baller.” Or, is it simply a mismatch, because pro athletes don’t have to wear condoms; column fodder for another day.

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