Senior NFL Columnist

Kaepernick validates Harbaugh's risk with trip to Super Bowl

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ATLANTA -- San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick seemed to be floating through the hallway of the Georgia Dome early Sunday evening, making his way to the team bus, not a care in the world, the stamp of approval as a big-time quarterback now on his resume.

He seems to play with a swagger anyway, but as he made his way to the bus there seemed to be more of it, almost oozing off him. Kaepernick, like Joe Montana and Steve Young before him, is taking his 49ers to the Super Bowl, and just like those two quarterbacks before him it's because of his arm, not his legs.

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The Atlanta Falcons dared Kaepernick to beat him with his arm in Sunday's NFC Championship Game, and all he did was complete 16 of 21 passes for 233 yards, a touchdown, no interceptions and a passer rating of 127.7 as the 49ers rallied from 17 down to beat the Falcons 28-24 to advance to the Super Bowl. It was the biggest comeback in NFC Championship Game history.

"He did win this game with his arm today," 49ers center Jonathan Goodwin said.

They can talk all they want about the read-option, the running quarterbacks, the mobility of the new breed of passers -- and Kaepernick brought that to light with his 181-yard rushing performance against Green Bay last week -- but the 49ers are in the Super Bowl again because Kaepernick put his foot in the ground, read the field and made some sick throws. He ran only twice for 21 yards and one of those was a scramble.

What can't he do?

"I already said it before, I don't want to be categorized as a quarterback," Kaepernick said. "I want to do my own thing."

Sorry, Colin. You proved Sunday you are a quarterback.

When 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh made the decision to sit Alex Smith and start Kaepernick in Week 11, I thought it a strange move. Smith was playing well. The 49ers were winning. And this was a team that went to the NFC title game last season.

I called it arrogant and dumb. I was the dumb one.

Why? I didn't see what this kid had, which is a bullet for an arm, a competitive fire and the head to read the field and make the right decisions. Here's a taste of how smart he is as a quarterback: Goodwin said he audibled on 40 percent of the plays at the line of scrimmage Sunday.

"I think he was right every time he changed it," Goodwin said.

Not too shabby for a guy making his ninth start. The move to start him is now validated.

I asked Harbaugh if he thought the win validates his decision. He gave me a typical Harbaugh answer. In other words, he didn't.

"I think winning the George Halas trophy is a huge accomplishment," Harbaugh said. "It's another flag. You want to get as many trophies and flags as you can. It does validate our team."

Kaepernick was asked the same question. His answer was much better.

"I am just thankful he made that decision," Kaepernick said.

So, too, are the 49ers players, fans and anyone else associated with the organization.

Harbaugh got this one right. Smith was safe. Kaepernick is daring. Smith was adequate. Kaepernick can be sensational.

The Falcons jumped to a 17-0 first-half lead as the 49ers didn't get a first down until the second quarter. It was the Matt Ryan show, as he carved up the 49ers' defense. That could break a lesser quarterback, especially one making his first road playoff start in a hostile, loud building.

Kapernick didn't flinch.

"Going on the field frantic isn't going to help you score points," Kaepernick said.

The 49ers cut the deficit to 17-14 late in the second quarter before Ryan hit Tony Gonzalez for a 10-yard scoring pass to make the score 24-14 at halftime.

Still, there was no panic. The 49ers took the opening kickoff and drove 82 yards to a 5-yard run by Frank Gore and then got their final points with 8:23 on a 9-yard run by Gore.

Then the defense held on. The Falcons got to the San Francisco 10, but two incomplete passes ended the threat and put the 49ers in the Super Bowl. Ryan suffered a separated left shoulder on the second-down play, so his last two throws might have been compromised. He left the Falcons locker room with his arm in a sling.

During the final drive, Kaepernick showed that the 49ers have become his team. During a timeout, he went out and had a little chat with the defense.

"This is for the Super Bowl right here," Kaepernick told them.

"We got you," they told him back.

And they did.

Now Kaepernick goes to the Super Bowl in his first year as a starter. Heck, he doesn't even have a full season taking snaps. You have to give him credit. You have to give Harbaugh credit for making the move.

"He competes like a maniac all the time," Harbaugh said.

But even Goodwin admitted there were doubts when the move was made.

"Naturally, when you go to a guy ho hasn't started a game in this league, you're a little worried," Goodwin said. "That's why he's the coach and I am the player. I definitely think it's validated. We got a step further than last year. Hats off to coach."

As Kaepernick finished up on the podium, Gore came up and hugged him and then shouted out praise, even though he wasn't asked a question.

"He can throw the ball, he can run the ball, he can do whatever," Gore said. "If it weren't for him, it would have been a tough game today. He's a football player."

I beg to differ. He's a quarterback.

I thought we'd see the beginning of the death of the read-option in the Georgia Dome Sunday. But instead we saw a birth of a quarterback -- even if that's something he doesn't want to be called.

Colin Kaepernick, quarterback. It has a nice ring to it and soon may have a Super Bowl ring as well.


Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.
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