They are big, strong and explosive, and capable of overwhelming opponents with their feet and their arms. Give or take an inch – Cam Newton is 6-foot-5 to Colin Kaepernick’s 6-4 – the quarterbacks in today’s NFC divisional playoff game look forward and stare straight into the other’s eyes.
So who flinches first?
Three years into their careers, there is very little separation. Kaepernick might be a little more colorful with all his tattoos, but Newton is no less dynamic. And no less intriguing. The No. 1 overall draft pick in 2011, he guided the Carolina Panthers to the NFC South title this season with numbers that sound familiar to folks around the Bay Area.
He completed 61.7 percent of his passes, threw for 24 touchdowns against 13 interceptions, and led all quarterbacks in rushing yards and average per carry (5.3). And there’s more. Because of his combination of speed, power and upper body musculature, tackling the 245-pound Newton is like trying to take down a linebacker, which is sort of ironic given that the Panthers’ formidable front seven includes the imposing Luke Kuechly.
Unlike last week’s wild-card game in frigid Green Bay, Wis., today is projected to be all about blue skies, Southern comfort (57-degree temperature) and black-and-blue marks endured and administered by two of the NFL’s most formidable defenses in Charlotte, N.C.
Um. Well. Maybe. But this is the postseason. Kaepernick and Newton have their own definition of a crossing pattern; the plan is to avoid being predictable or overly cautious.
“When you have a quarterback of Cam Newton’s ability in this type of game, I think he’ll be asked to run maybe a little bit more than he would normally,” 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio theorized. “They may even call more of the quarterback runs for him, the quarterback powers and lead draws. We’re anticipating more of those.”
The Panthers undoubtedly expect more of the same from Kaepernick, who tormented the Green Bay Packers with 98 rushing yards, including a last-minute gallop that set up Phil Dawson’s deciding field goal. Whether Kaepernick is experiencing a flashback, benefiting from Michael Crabtree’s return, or simply maturing, this isn’t the same tentative quarterback who earlier in the season struggled with his reads and routinely went for the slide instead of the extra yards.
Increasingly, Kaepernick has become more daring, more elusive, more familiar. He is releasing the ball more quickly and confidently, showing off both his arm strength and his accuracy. And those legs. The coltish element of his game has reappeared. His ability to elude pressure, make plays and devour yardage have been crucial components of the 49ers’ second-half surge.
Kaepernick’s woeful performance against the Panthers on Nov. 10? The game in which he was sacked six times and held to season lows in passing (91 yards) and rushing (16 yards)? It feels like a bad movie from a bygone era. And no one – not Kaepernick, not head coach Jim Harbaugh, not offensive coordinator Greg Roman, and certainly not the Panthers – expect a replay.
Kaepernick even elicited high praise and a semi-apology from ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer, the former 49ers backup quarterback who criticized the team’s offensive philosophy and its quarterback after the Panthers beat the 49ers 10-9 at Candlestick Park.
“They’re mad at me for saying that,” Dilfer told reporters during a teleconference Thursday, “but they don’t have a real complex passing game that has multiple progressions built in, protection adjustments, a lot of layers to it. The best thing he’s (Kaepernick) doing now is letting it rip, making big-time throws into contested coverage, and getting the ball out of his hand. And when he does break down and his instinct is to run, he obviously has tremendous ability.”
Kaepernick also has playoff experience, including last year’s Super Bowl. And Newton has none. This will be his postseason debut. That said, the Atlanta native did win the national championship and the Heisman Trophy while at Auburn, and not insignificantly, has withstood the intense scrutiny experienced by anyone who plays major college or pro football in the South.
Regardless of which factors ultimately influence the outcome, Kaepernick and Newton, both still evolving, both unfinished products, are just getting started.
“The biggest, baddest dude is no longer playing wide receiver, tight end or defensive end,” added Dilfer, who evaluates high school talent in his spare time. “He’s playing quarterback.”