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  • Steven Senne / Associated Press

    Colin Kaepernick

  • Nathan Denette / Canadian Press

    Russell Wilson

49ers' Harbaugh, Seahawks' Carroll bet season on young but athletic quarterbacks

Published: Sunday, Dec. 23, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1C
Last Modified: Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014 - 11:14 am

SEATTLE – Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll have been jousting, jabbing and flinging barbs at each other for six years.

But here's one thing on which they agree: Having a quarterback who can make plays with his legs, arm and a combination of both takes the bite out of defenses and is the future of the NFL.

Both coaches made gutsy decisions this year to go with unproven but tantalizingly athletic quarterbacks. Carroll did so at the beginning of the season when he picked rookie Russell Wilson to start for the Seattle Seahawks over free-agent acquisition Matt Flynn. Harbaugh made a similar move in Week 12 when he went with second-year player Colin Kaepernick over a healthy Alex Smith.

Today, those young quarterbacks are pitted against each other in a game that could decide the NFC West. Win today and the 49ers will take their second division title in a row. If the Seahawks win, they'll assure themselves a playoff spot and keep alive the possibility of stealing the division next week with a victory combined with a 49ers loss to Arizona.

Today's game promises to be the first of many encounters between Wilson and Kaepernick, who are part of a vanguard of young quarterbacks that includes Carolina's Cam Newton and Washington's Robert Griffin III who have found near-instant NFL success because they are equally at ease throwing from the pocket and running around left end on an option play.

"Both of them can make all the throws, and both of them have a knack for getting out (on the run), and when they do, they're dangerous," Carroll said of Wilson and Kaepernick. "Big plays – Colin's had some huge plays scrambling. Russell scored on one last week from 30 (yards) or whatever."

When the teams met in Week 7, Wilson ran the ball three times for 10 yards in a 13-6 win for the 49ers. Last week, in a 50-17 romp over the Buffalo Bills, Wilson took off nine times for 92 yards and scored three touchdowns with his feet.

That's the biggest difference with the Seattle offense now vs. two months ago, said 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. The Seahawks increasingly have Wilson running the option play out of the shotgun – Kaepernick's speciality – and it's something for which the 49ers were preparing all last week.

"They had shown it very sparingly prior to the (Week 7) game," Fangio said. "Now they're doing it a lot. I think they've done it over 10 times in the last three games, and that really has sparked their offense a little bit.

"And the quarterback's just gotten better and better, as you'd expect a rookie quarterback to do. He's no longer a rookie. This is his 15th pro start."

Not too long ago, teams would draft an athletic quarterback and then spend several seasons teaching him not to stray from the pocket.

Nowadays, Carroll said, the college game is so advanced that quarterbacks arrive needing far less training. And as a result, coaches are more apt to let them loose right away.

"It has opened the offenses in a very exciting way," the Seahawks coach said. "The lid's off it right now. Cam Newton was the big start to all this, and the sky's the limit."

One more common denominator between Kaepernick and Wilson – both were drafted to play major league baseball. The Colorado Rockies took Wilson, a second baseman, in the fourth round of the 2010 draft. Kaepernick, a pitcher whose fastball once was clocked at 94 mph, went a bit later in the 2009 draft. He was taken in the 43rd round by the Chicago Cubs.

Harbaugh and Carroll said that baseball background only underscores their quarterbacks' athleticism. Also, having experience fielding ground balls and firing them to first base doesn't hurt when it comes to contorting the body, throwing around oncoming linemen and otherwise releasing the football in a variety of ways.

"He's got every throw," Carroll said of Wilson. "And as a second baseman, there's all kinds of screwball, weird things that you've got to do with the ball to make plays, double plays and the different positions you get in.

"He's got an array of throws when he needs them that just come out naturally."

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Read more articles by Matthew Barrows

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