As hard as it was to watch my vaunted Green Bay Packers crumple like a paper mache’ balloon last night, one could not help but recognize that a major shift in how the storied game of football is going to be played was on display. Colin Kaepernick schooled a proud defense on what a new age quarterback is capable of. Kaepernick was the central force in a 45-31 rout of the Packers by the San Francisco 49’ers, passing for 263 yards and two touchdowns and running for an astonishing 181 yards and two touchdowns.
The Packers were supposed to be the team with the quintessential quarterback type in Aaron Rodgers. The NFL has changed the rules of the game to create a quarterback league, in which a bright, strong armed quarterback is allowed to dissect the defense like a surgeon, with his body and the passing lanes he is throwing to protected to rev up the scoring game for the fans. For twenty years, the Marinos, Favres, Bradys, Mannings, Brees and Rodgers prototypes have been what every team has prayed to be lucky enough to find. To protect this commodity, the NFL assured that their survival would be paramount, and assured the quarterback would be as immune as possible to hits around the knees, the head, and from any over exuberant force. This has resulted in high scores and extended lives to quarterbacks. Brett Favre was the epitome of this, playing at a high level for twenty years and setting the record for the most consecutive games played by any position player at over 290 straight games. Rodgers has been the heir to Favre’s throne, durable, smarter, more mobile, and every bit as strong armed. Last night, however, his prototype was yesterday’s news.
Colin Kaepernick performed the position of quarterback in a way that will convert the league to a new way of thinking. Smart enough not to panic with his initial mistake throwing an early interception for a touchdown, Kaepernick made quality safe throws, and punished the Packer’s with a devastating display of quickness and running dexterity. The original mold breaker was Michael Vick, with his 4.4 speed and runner first mentality, but the game will be permanently changed by a Kaepernick that can throw as well as he can run.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the golden age of the NFL was dominated by running backs like Jim Brown, Jim Taylor, OJ Simpson, Franco Harris, and Walter Payton. The sorry truth of the glamour of the running back was that the position battered the physical and mental health of these players. Given the exceptional monetary investment in star players, teams have figured out that the beating these players take wore them out by age 30, and has made an “experienced” running back a worthless addition to the team. The modern running back is around at most five to eight years, before they are replaced with younger legs, and clearer minds. The glamorous running back has been replaced by the glamorous quarterback, protected by the rules and capable of making the team’s extended financial investment a more secure bet.
Now, with Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III we see the new model, the running quarterback that can throw. The combination can be a devastating offensive tool, but the reality is that the rules to protect quarterbacks were based on the consideration that they would be primarily pocket passers and would attempt to run only rarely, sliding to a safe landing, with no hit of significance allowed. What is to now become of the defense’s willingness to “pull back” now that the quarterback is willing to project down the field with his legs? I think we already have the answer in RG III, who didn’t get through his first year without a devastating injury. As beautiful as it was to watch Kaepernick, it is almost a certainty, that he will face a hit that will eliminate his “elusiveness”. It happened to Vick. It happened to RG III. And it will happen to Kaepernick.
When the quarterbacks of the future determine to leave the cocoon of the passing pocket routinely, defenses are not going to take it without responding. As spectacular as the new age quarterback is to watch take over a game, I’m afraid his moment of glory as a game changer in the NFL is going to be short lived. We will see if teams are going to be willing to invest in the quarterback position, when quarterbacks have the playing life that turns out to be as short as the glamorous running backs they replaced in the klieg lights of NFL stardom. To Colin Kaepernick, I salute you. It was a beautiful performance of athleticism. Unfortunately, I’m afraid the moment of glory is going to be brief, and the end, eventually, hard to watch.