There is no recent precedent for Kaepernick in the NFL. His NFL passer rating (98.7) and Total QBR score (82.8) through eight career starts (one of them postseason) both rank No. 1 for any player's first eight starts over the past five years.
The leading question heading into the NFC Championship Game was supposed to ask why coach Jim Harbaugh messed with a good thing by moving Kaepernick into the lineup over veteran Alex Smith. Smith, after all, had completed 25 of his previous 27 passes. He had a 104.1 passer rating, the NFL's highest completion percentage and a higher two-year winning percentage than Tom Brady when Kaepernick made his first start in Week 11.
The question now is more like, "What took Harbaugh so long?"
Kaepernick, selected 36th overall in 2011, was the sixth quarterback drafted in his class. Cam Newton, Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder and Andy Dalton went ahead of him. Those five have enjoyed varying degrees of success. None stepped into a situation nearly as favorable as the one awaiting Kaepernick.
The 49ers had in Smith a veteran starter with an even temperament and a willingness to provide whatever support a young quarterback wanted.
Kaepernick, unlike the five quarterbacks drafted ahead of him, would have a retired quarterback as his head coach. Four of the five quarterbacks drafted ahead of Kaepernick would begin their careers under defensive-minded head coaches. The fifth, Tennessee's Locker, would have a former guard as his head coach. All but Kaepernick and Locker would make their starting debuts as rookies.
As things worked out in San Francisco, Kaepernick would have a full season and half of another to become acclimated before starting.
When Smith suffered a concussion and the 49ers finally needed Kaepernick to start, they could support him with a dominant rushing attack and one of the NFL's top defenses. The 49ers ranked among the NFL's top five in point margin per game, rushing yards, yards allowed and defensive EPA from the day they drafted Kaepernick to the night they started him for the first time.
Kaepernick completed 16 of 23 passes (69.6 percent) for 243 yards and two touchdowns against a Bears defense that had been leading the NFL in defensive EPA while ranking first in NFL passer rating allowed (61.5) and second in Total QBR allowed (20.4) to that point in the season. The 49ers won, 32-7.
Weeks later, Kaepernick would become the NFC's offensive player of the week for tossing four touchdown passes against New England. The Patriots' Brady entered that game with an 84-14 career starting record at home, counting postseason. The 49ers built a 31-3 lead and won 41-34 after Kaepernick found Michael Crabtree for the winning 38-yard touchdown pass with 6:25 remaining.
Kaepernick's 181 rushing yards against Green Bay in the divisional playoffs set a record for an NFL quarterback in any game. But Kaepernick, reportedly the owner of a 94 mph fastball when he played baseball, stands out nearly as much for his arm.
One pass busted Randy Moss' finger. Another throw, this one on third-and-12 against Chicago, led veteran tight end and longtime Smith supporter Vernon Davis to bow before his new quarterback right there on the field.
"I'm just so proud of him in that moment because the ball that he threw me, it was just one of those balls that you see Tom Brady throw," Davis said at the time. "Second window, right on the money. Surprise. I didn't expect the ball to come, because we ran that play quite a few times, and the tight end usually don't get the ball on that play."
Kaepernick (96.8) and Smith (94.5) have similar NFL passer ratings as starters on third down this season.
Kaepernick holds a striking lead (86.3 to 32.9) in Total QBR on third down, however.
Sacks and rushing plays account for the difference.
Kaepernick's 20-yard touchdown run against the Packers came on a third-and-8 play early in the game. It gave him 19 carries for 180 yards and two scores with nine first downs on third-down rushing attempts this season. Smith has seven third-down carries for 43 yards and one first down.
Kaepernick has taken four sacks on 77 third-down drop backs. Smith has five additional sacks on 10 fewer third-down drop backs.
The 49ers average an additional 2.2 yards per third-down drop back when Kaepernick is their starting quarterback relative to when Smith is the starter.
49ers coach Jim Harbaugh says QB Colin Kaepernick's ability to rebound from bad plays is rare.
Another kind of resiliency
No quarterback can top Smith for resiliency over the past several seasons. Smith has survived nearly annual coordinator changes, criticism from former head coach Mike Nolan, excruciating pain associated with injury, and his unexpected benching this season.
Kaepernick has shown another kind of bounce-back ability.
The quarterback's 20-yard touchdown run against the Packers came one drive after Kaepernick threw an interception for a touchdown.
A 50-yard scramble in the fourth quarter at St. Louis in Week 13 set up the go-ahead field goal one drive after Kaepernick's errant pitch gave the Rams an easy touchdown.
Kaepernick has led 49ers touchdown drives on the possessions immediately following the four interceptions he has thrown. As Cam Inman pointed out, Smith has never done that following any of his 10 picks over the past two seasons.
Mere coincidence? The 49ers do not think so.
"I'm not making any statement like I know how to do it, or not do it," Harbaugh told reporters. "I'm just observing that he seems to have a rare ability to bounce back."
Harbaugh, the owner of 129 touchdown passes and 117 interceptions during his regular-season playing career, would seem to have a feel for such things.
"As a quarterback, you throw an interception in a game, there's just a tendency the next time to double-check things," Harbaugh said. "And that's not the way to do it. You want him to be trusting what he sees and cut it loose. And I think he’s shown a rare ability to not have to double-check."
Critics unmoved by the evidence supporting Kaepernick could have questioned Harbaugh's decision more credibly had the 49ers failed to advance past the divisional round. That's no longer possible now that Kaepernick has advanced as far as Smith did last season.
Total QBR Leaders, Weeks 11-19
Source: ESPN Stats & Information
Smith completed 46.2 percent of his passes with two touchdowns, three sacks, a 97.6 passer rating and 30.7 QBR score during the 49ers' 20-17 defeat against the New York Giants in the NFC Championship Game last season. The 49ers, playing with a severely diminished receiving corps, converted just once on 13 third-down opportunities.
Kaepernick appears well positioned to improve upon that standard. He posted five single-game QBR scores in the 80s or higher since becoming a starter in Week 11, counting his 94.7 figure while amassing 444 total yards and four touchdowns against the Packers. Kaepernick is tied with Seattle's Russell Wilson for the most 80-plus games over that span. Ryan, Peyton Manning and Rodgers are next with four apiece.
Not bad company for the sixth quarterback selected in his draft class.