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  • Hector Amezcua /

    The 49ers' Colin Kaepernick averages 8.38 yards a try, the best of any starting quarterback.

  • Harry E. Walker / MCT

    Robert Griffin III was unsuccessfully recruited by Jim Harbaugh when he coached at Stanford.

49ers' Harbaugh may see bit of Griffin in Kaepernick

Published: Friday, Dec. 7, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1C
Last Modified: Saturday, Dec. 8, 2012 - 10:56 pm

SANTA CLARA – On Sunday, Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers died by the option play. On Monday, Robert Griffin III and the Redskins flourished with it.

Washington rushed for 207 yards – 72 by Griffin – as the Redskins toppled the defending Super Bowl champion Giants 17-16 on national television.

Why has Jim Harbaugh staked so much – the season, his credibility – on Kaepernick? Just look at what Griffin did against New York.

No team has been a bigger thorn in the 49ers' side the last two seasons than the Giants, and they are a towering obstacle on any team's path to the Super Bowl. But for the second time this season, they showed they have trouble keeping up with Griffin.

The Redskins blended Griffin's ability to dart to the outside and to run the option with a stout, up-the-gut running game. They have 450 rushing yards in two games against New York this season and lead the league in rushing.

"This offense puts so much stress on the defense," lamented Giants defensive end Justin Tuck, who was caught pass rushing to the inside when Griffin was darting free to the outside.

Harbaugh and the 49ers have the same kind of quarterback.

Griffin and Kaepernick can throw, they can run, and they can throw on the run, especially deep down field. Kaepernick averages 8.38 yards per attempt, the best of any starting quarterback. Carolina's Cam Newton is next, followed by Griffin at 8.19 yards an attempt.

That Griffin did a lot of his damage against the Giants from the "pistol" formation only hammers home the comparison. Kaepernick has a Ph.D in the pistol, having run it for 3 1/2 seasons at Nevada. He could teach a graduate course on the subject.

Kaepernick, of course, threw away his most recent option opportunity, and the mistake turned what was shaping up to be a comfortable win over the Rams into an overtime defeat.

But it doesn't sound as if the experience will deter the 49ers. On Thursday, offensive coordinator Greg Roman said that having the option in the offensive arsenal is the wave of the future.

"I do – felt that way for a while," Roman said. " … I can remember Pittsburgh ran an option play against the Packers in the Super Bowl a couple of years ago. It's in a lot of people's playbooks. Some people teach it more than others. But those type of plays put a lot of pressure on a defense."

It's obvious now that Harbaugh has always wanted a quarterback who can vex defenses with his legs as well as his arm, always coveted a quarterback who can force defensive ends like Tuck and Sunday's opponent, Cameron Wake, to analyze instead of being aggressive.

After all, Harbaugh recruited Griffin when he was coaching at Stanford. Griffin went to Baylor, and Harbaugh went with another kid from Texas, Andrew Luck.

It's also worth revisiting Harbaugh's pre-draft comments from 2011.

The 49ers had the No. 7 selection and were expected to take a quarterback early. Harbaugh was asked about Newton, the most athletic – and controversial – passer in that draft class.

"That's plutonium-grade raw material, you know?" Harbaugh said. "I haven't seen upside like with this guy in probably the last 10 years."

Harbaugh never got a chance to mold that raw material; Newton was taken No. 1 overall by the Panthers. So Harbaugh obtained his own batch of plutonium in the second round in Kaepernick.

Plutonium is such a wonderful word for the occasion because it connotes volatility and danger. And that's what Harbaugh's decision to go with Kaepernick instead of the safer, more stable Alex Smith has been about.

It could blow up in his face just as the decision to call a pitch-option late in the fourth did on Sunday.

Or Kaepernick could be the weapon the 49ers need to go deep into the playoffs and defeat a defense like the Giants'.

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Read more articles by Matthew Barrows

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