For me, yesterday started with an article by Peter King explaining why the Green Bay Packers would finish the season with a 33-30 win in the Super Bowl over the Denver Broncos. It ended with a lesson: teams need more than a brand name quarterback to win in the playoffs.
Colin Kaepernick came into last night’s game as a nationwide curiosity, with stories about tattoos and turtles taking precendence over throws and runs. Now he is a full-fledged star, a uniquely talented quarterback who rushed for more yards in a single game than anyone in the NFL ever has at his position. Check out this list of records provided by the 49ers’ PR staff, they’re nothing short of unreal:
Terry Kirby? Huh. Haven’t thought about him in quite some time. For some reason my friends and I liked to call him “Larry.” Same with Barry Bonds. Sorry, got distracted.
Kaepernick made 181 rushing yards look easy — shockingly so for a guy who only rushed for 5 yards in the 49ers’ last regular season game — and showed why Jim Harbaugh decided to make a permanent change at the position once Alex Smith suffered a concussion … but not in the way many of us thought. We knew Kaepernick was a speedy quarterback with the type of frame that can handle a little more punishment than someone like Michael Vick. But at the time the move was made, it seemed like the goal was to “open up the offense” (translation: execute more vertical passing plays). However, last night it seemed like the point of the quarterback switch all along was to enhance the team’s biggest offensive strength.
Their offensive line.
The 49ers’ wide receivers, even with the additions of Mario Manningham, Randy Moss and a supposedly useful first round draft pick were, at best, an above average group when the season started. Frank Gore is an outstanding runner and blocker and Kendall Hunter provided a good change of pace, but there are other teams with equal or better personnel in that area. You could say almost the exact same thing about their tight ends. Very good and multifaceted, but not the class of the league.
Their offensive line, however, gives the 49ers a decided advantage in every game. It was the first “matchup to exploit” that I listed a couple days ago, and boy did they. Joe Staley was the offense’s version of Justin Smith, shrugging off a deep arm bruise caused by Clay Matthews to keep the long-maned one from being the destructive force he often is. The 49ers took Staley in the first round, same with Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis. Many thought it curious when San Francisco moved up two spots to draft Davis at No. 11 overall, then chose Iupati six spots later. Davis was too immature, and Iupati was just a guard. Last night, the two friends (they are nearly inseparable in the locker room) had a run-blocking night for the ages.
Alex Boone and Jonathan Goodwin, the least penalized members of the 49ers’ line, were the two offensive linemen the 49ers didn’t draft, and they’ve also had outstanding seasons. Boone was truly an incredible find, an enormous (no pun intended) upgrade over Adam Snyder. Boone finished the 2012 season with an overall Pro Football Focus score of +24.7. Snyder, who signed with Arizona in the offseason, graded out at -20.1.
This line isn’t just good in terms of technique, they’re also mean and tough. Iupati, who was named first-team All-Pro for the first (and probably not last) time, often leaves games with injuries that appear catastrophic. Then he comes back a few plays later, and you never hear about the injury again. The finger injury Davis suffered in New Orleans led to one of the most gruesome photos in Twitter history. Staley suffered a concussion against the Giants and played the next game, which took place on a Thursday.
The 49ers’ offensive line is the best, most dependable unit one can find. How can a quarterback who is in effect a rookie thrive in the playoffs after only seven career starts? Look no further.
San Francisco has always been about running the ball while using a variety of formations. The line is the constant. San Francisco’s defense didn’t “shut down” Aaron Rodgers, they kept him off the field with a ludicrous 38:01-21:59 edge in time of possession. Frank Gore rushed for over 100 yards for the first time in almost three months, and Kaepernick was pressured on less than a third of the passing plays.
It seemed like besides hoping Justin Smith could come back and contribute (he did) and praying for the game not to be decided on a kick by David Akers (it wasn’t), most observers pointed to the 49ers’ running game as a major key to advancing to the NFC Championship (which will take place in Atlanta). But no one predicted 323 rushing and 579 total yards — both single-game franchise records for a postseason game.
When the 49ers set postseason franchise records, particularly on offense, you know something noteworthy occurred.
Just like the 49ers gear their defense toward freeing up their strongest unit (their linebackers) to do what they do best, the move to Kaepernick was made to feature the biggest mismatch-creator on offense, the offensive line. It took a little while and there were some rough patches in terms of chemistry and communication after Kaepernick took over. But the extra week of preparation, combined with seeing Vikings QB Joe Webb rush seven times for 68 yards in Lambeau, allowed Greg Roman and Harbaugh to craft a gameplan that could take advantage of a Green Bay weakness with the 49ers’ greatest strength.