NEW ORLEANS Jim Harbaugh says Colin Kaepernick's a natural, so maybe his emergence is really that simple. A fairy tale set in fantasyland. A football story that becomes more dramatic by the week. An ascension so ridiculously swift and sure, so premature, that the 49ers' front office folks are even scratching their heads.
Harbaugh. Trent Baalke. Greg Roman. In their bones, with their eyes, on the tapes. They envisioned Kaepernick as a franchise player, but, geez, he surprised them, too.
The original plan give their second-year quarterback a few reps and get him ready for the future was accelerated when Alex Smith suffered a concussion at midseason. Kaepernick took over the huddle and took control of the franchise.
"I thought it was a unique situation," Harbaugh said the other day. "Viewed it that way when it happened. Two quarterbacks were playing extremely well. Made the decision that we thought was best for our team. It's just natural that this guy can handle this."
Seriously? Can Kaepernick possibly be ready for this?
The 10th start of his NFL career will be a Super Bowl matchup against the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday, a team with a punishing defense, a familiar coach, an explosive running back, a corps of talented receivers, and an experienced, strong-arm quarterback who is riding his own wave of momentum.
And not to pile on the pressure, but the 49ers don't merely compete in Super Bowls, they win Super Bowls. Joe Montana engineered four victories and Steve Young dominated for a fifth. Kaepernick, a one-time power pitcher, will try to extend the shutout to 6-0 and finish with an outrageously improbable flourish.
Whether or not he cracks remains to be seen this is the Super Bowl, after all. So far, though, this is just another day on the job. Throughout a week that includes days of interview sessions, dozens of requests for autographs and photos, demands for tickets by friends and relatives, and practices and strategy sessions somehow squeezed into the schedule, the former Nevada standout has remained his usual self-contained self.
Even in media sessions, Kaepernick responds with short phrases and few expressions, zealously guarding his inner thoughts and deep emotions.
Except for the introduction of the "Kaepernicking" pose a curious follow-the-leader marketing rip-off, in my opinion he has left his coaches and teammates to chronicle his remarkable rise. And they have obliged. Oh, they have obliged.
They clearly have Kaepernick's back, with even Smith's closest friends openly applauding the second-year pro's poise, his unique dimensions and effectiveness in the dynamic pistol formation, along with his impressive, at times stunning postseason accomplishments. First, he galloped past the Green Bay Packers at a record-setting pace. Then he went down 17-0 against the Atlanta Falcons and came up with a dominant second half, silencing the Georgia Dome with his decision-making, play action and perfect passes, many of them to tight end Vernon Davis.
"We tried to make everybody forget about it (pistol formations) and think we had scrapped it leading into the playoffs," said Roman, the 49ers' offensive coordinator. "We felt we could win our division and whatnot the traditional way. We kept practicing it and just felt like it was something we could spring on whoever we played in the playoffs."
Roman, who was on Harbaugh's staff when Andrew Luck was at Stanford, said he noted similarities between the quarterbacks while preparing for the 2011 NFL draft. Of the two, however, the 6-foot-4 Kaepernick, who was selected with the 36th pick, clearly was the more unpolished product. He arrived at Santa Clara resembling an eager, elongated wildcat, a player with sprinter's speed and arm strength that burned and bruised receivers' hands.
His mechanics were more than a little unconventional, as well; his long, looping windup was that of a pitcher's, too slow and deliberate against on-rushing NFL defenders.
Roman taught Kaepernick a more efficient throwing motion, then turned his attention to specific passes and that chart-popping arm strength.
"There are different arcs you want on the ball," the offensive coordinator continued. "We saw him as someone we could work with on that."
Though Kaepernick has become increasingly adept at touch passes and even an occasional lob, his teammates routinely joke about the damage he inflicts on hands allegedly protected by gloves.
"He'll take your fingers off if you don't watch it," said Davis. "I talk to him all the time about putting a little less mustard (on the ball)."
Offered veteran wide receiver Randy Moss, who has been unusually engaging this week: "I wish he would take some of the heat off those balls sometimes. But his future is very bright. Either he or Frank Gore asked me: 'Moss, how long do you think this pistol offense will work?' I said, man, as long as you keep doing what you're doing, it will go as far as you take it.' I'm a big fan of Kaepernick's."
The fan club is growing by the game. It's the arm, it's the legs, it's the composure, it's the leadership. It's the run/pass/handoff dimensions he presents in the read-option. It's the success and the potential for more success. Smith's longtime friends and allies are all lined up in Kaepernick's corner now. Davis. Running back Frank Gore. Tackle Joe Staley.
"He has proven he is a very, very, very capable quarterback who does amazing things," praised Staley. "No moment is too big."