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Monday, January 21, 2013
Updated: January 25, 2:05 PM ET
Kaepernick gives SF what it needs

By Ashley Fox
ESPN.com

ATLANTA -- Aldon Smith looked at the autograph scratched atop his white headphones and sighed.

"I don't really like it," Smith said as he made his way down a corridor inside the Georgia Dome, still holding the black Sharpie that had been used to permanently decorate his Beats. "It's not legible. It's not good. It's not good at all."

Jim Harbaugh and Colin Kaepernick
Jim Harbaugh's decision to go with second-year pro Colin Kaepernick lifted his team to the Super Bowl.

Colin Kaepernick has a messy autograph. The horror. His play? His play Sunday against Atlanta was just another piece of evidence showing why Jim Harbaugh made the outside-the-box decision to replace Alex Smith with Kaepernick midway through the season.

Harbaugh was right. Kaepernick was the answer. He did give the 49ers the better chance to get to the Super Bowl. He did give San Francisco an added dimension. He made the Niners special in the playoffs, first with his legs and then with his arm. Kaepernick did it.

Now, San Francisco is headed to New Orleans to face the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII. Story No. 1 of Super Bowl week will be the matchup between brothers Jim and John Harbaugh, coach of the Baltimore Ravens, who got past New England to reach their first Super Bowl since John became the coach in 2008.

Story No. 2 will be Ray Lewis' last run. He announced before the playoffs that this would be it for him after 17 seasons with the Ravens. After wins by Baltimore over Indianapolis, Denver and now New England, Lewis' final career game will be in the Super Bowl.

Story No. 3: The rise of Kaepernick, who a few short months ago was holding a clipboard as Smith's backup. Kaepernick was always Harbaugh's guy, the starter in waiting, the future. But he became the present 10 weeks ago, after Smith suffered a concussion and Harbaugh decided to trust his gut. So often coaches make the easy, comfortable, safe decisions, to protect their jobs and their seasons. Not Harbaugh. He decided Kaepernick was the better option and didn't look back.

It was a gamble and a risk and could have completely backfired once the pressure and pace of the postseason picked up. Kaepernick started seven regular-season games. Now, he's started two in the postseason. His third will be in Super Bowl XLVII.

Not that getting there was easy. No, as they did last week against Seattle, the Falcons jumped out to a 17-0 lead by scoring on their first three possessions. With three, four and sometimes five pass-catchers on the field, Matt Ryan made the game look like a seven-on-seven drill. Julio Jones had five catches, 100 receiving yards and one touchdown in the first quarter alone.

But for his team's third possession, 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman knew he needed to settle his offense down. He called for four straight Frank Gore runs. Gore gained 9, 1, 3 and 7 yards. It wasn't so much that Gore gashed the Falcons. More importantly, he got San Francisco into a rhythm. He got the offense moving, and it resulted in a touchdown that wrestled momentum from the Falcons.

"That touchdown drive, the ability to get it in the end zone was the key to me," Roman said. "We broke the ice. It was time to go, and we didn't have to get outside of ourselves."

But they also didn't need Kaepernick to slice through the Falcons with his legs the way he had against Green Bay the previous week. Kaepernick beat the Falcons with his arm. He relied on Gore, rediscovered tight end Vernon Davis and didn't force runs. He picked apart the Falcons' secondary, which gave San Francisco's receivers huge cushions, seemingly because they were leery that Kaepernick would take off.

Roman said he focused primarily on the middle of the field.

"We saw we could pierce the middle of the defense," he said. "Be patient, but wear them down as the game went on. Guys did a great job of staying with the plan.

"[Kaepernick] did a great job. Everybody's so focused on the running part of it, I kind of hate to talk about it. The most important thing is the throws he makes. Last week, you know, everybody was questioning about the read option and all this; that really isn't the difference. The difference is the ultimate conflict we can create when he's throwing it like he's been."

Colin Kaepernick
The 49ers' victory in the NFC Championship Game over the Falcons was Kaepernick's ninth NFL start.

There's the conflict Kaepernick creates for opponents, and then there is the love that his teammates have for him. It was obvious when Gore interrupted Kaepernick's postgame news conference, answering a question for him.

"He can do whatever," Gore said. "He's a hard worker. He's a different quarterback, how he takes pride and leads us. He's started [nine] games. Hey, he's football. If it weren't for him, it would've been a tough game for us."

Gore looked at Kaepernick and added, "You deserve it."

Kaepernick said the first people he would call would be his parents, and that he would rely on them to help advise him on how to handle the added spotlight of being a starting quarterback in the Super Bowl.

His teammates aren't worried.

"I don't think he'll get Hollywood," said tight end Delanie Walker. "He's not that type of guy."

No, he's not. Kaepernick is quiet, reserved and pretty simple. He's reliable, a good friend and the perfect teammate, a guy who will work and not draw attention to himself and then just go make plays. He doesn't want to be defined as any one thing, he said. "I want to be my own man."

He already is. That's why Smith asked Kaepernick for his autograph in the locker room after the game.

"He's pretty good," Smith said, looking down at his headphones and Kaepernick's illegible signature. "These might be worth something one day now."

They could be worth something two weeks from now.