San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh didn't need to raise the expectations for quarterback Colin Kaepernick in a recent meeting with local reporters. The stakes have been raised for Kaepernick ever since he lofted an ill-fated pass in the final seconds of last year's NFC Championship Game defeat, a game-deciding toss that Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman tipped into the hands of linebacker Malcolm Smith. That interception both ended the 49ers' hopes of returning to the Super Bowl and reminded us that Kaepernick isn't Superman just yet.
If he really is destined to reach elite status in this league, this is the year when he needs to take a giant leap forward.
Harbaugh set the stage for such expectations by recently saying that this would be Kaepernick's breakout season. It actually seemed like an odd statement, because Kaepernick broke out in his second year -- when he replaced former starter Alex Smith midway through the 2012 season and led San Francisco to Super Bowl XLVII -- but it's easy to see Harbaugh's motive in retrospect. A team that already had two proven wide receivers in Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin has added two more veteran targets this offseason (Brandon Lloyd and Stevie Johnson) and drafted another wideout in fourth-round pick Bruce Ellington. Add in Pro Bowl tight end Vernon Davis, and Kaepernick has never been blessed with a better supporting cast.
The 26-year-old Kaepernick basically is at the point in his career when he should be able to carry the 49ers whenever necessary. He never had to do that in 2012. Last season, he proved incapable of doing it without Crabtree, who suffered an Achilles injury in organized team activities, and the 49ers started slowly. At a time when it appeared likely that the 49ers would lean on their rising star quarterback, Harbaugh reverted to a more conservative, run-first approach that saved the season and raised real questions about Kaepernick's growth.
The fact that Kaepernick rebounded in the second half and played well in the postseason helped erase some of those concerns. (In his defense, he was playing with an injury-riddled receiving corps in the first half of the season.)
But he hasn't taken his career to a level where he is above scrutiny. This is a quarterback who reportedly is looking to make around $18 million-20 million per season in his next contract. If he's going to reap such jaw-dropping rewards, he can't expect people to dismiss his shortcomings.
One reason this season is so critical for Kaepernick is that the 49ers now need him like never before.
First, the vaunted defense that has been the backbone of this franchise for the past three years has significant concerns. Pro Bowl outside linebacker Aldon Smith could be facing a lengthy suspension, Pro Bowl safety Donte Whitner signed with Cleveland earlier this offseason and Pro Bowl inside linebacker Navarro Bowman won't be available until the second half of this season after tearing the ACL in his left knee in that NFC title game. That's a lot of weapons to take away from a unit that consistently has ranked among the NFL's best since Harbaugh's arrival in 2011.
This means San Francisco won't always have the luxury of playing for field position, relying on critical takeaways and riding the aging legs of running back Frank Gore. The 49ers will need more big plays from Kaepernick, who has done the bulk of his most memorable damage with his feet. We all remember the way he mystified the Green Bay Packers with 181 rushing yards in a playoff win two years ago and the moves he put on Seahawks defenders in that NFC title game (11 carries for 130 yards). Those were the moments when it was understandable to see why some NFL decision-makers think he has the highest ceiling of any young quarterback in the game.
The problem is that Kaepernick hasn't been as consistent with his arm. The throw that Smith intercepted in Seattle was the result of a quarterback believing too much in his arm and challenging a Pro Bowl cornerback who has picked off 16 passes in the past two years. Kaepernick also has to improve his ability to go through his progressions and involve other receivers. He was a different player when Crabtree returned in the second half of last season, largely because Kaepernick clearly trusts Crabtree more than any other receiver on the roster.
That isn't to say the fourth-year quarterback won't blossom. The 49ers have too many weapons, and he has too much talent to not make a run at being an elite quarterback. But it is fair to say that this year is huge because the 49ers are no longer the hunted. The minute Seattle won last year's Super Bowl -- with its own young star quarterback, Russell Wilson, helping to lead the way -- they sent a serious message to their NFC West rivals. In short, the 49ers need an even stronger sense of urgency if they want to play for Lombardi trophies in the near future.
That may partly explain why Harbaugh felt the need to hype Kaepernick so early in the offseason. Until this week, most of the attention on Kaepernick had hovered around an incident in Miami that police investigated after a woman claimed she had partied with him, 49ers wide receiver Quinton Patton and Seahawks wideout Ricardo Lockette before waking up naked in a bed and going to a local hospital. Kaepernick has maintained his innocence of any wrongdoing, and no charges have been filed against him or the two other men. Still, it's the last thing he needed to be dealing with at this stage of his career.
Today, the narrative is back to what Kaepernick can do when his growth matches his insane talent. Harbaugh went so far as to recall "The Six Million Dollar Man," the 1970s television show, saying Kaepernick looks "bionic." If that is indeed the case, it would be nice to see the 49ers use him as though he's blessed with powers that defy imagination. Kaepernick started 16 games last season but threw for more than 200 yards just six times.
That is a worrisome number, because it speaks to what the 49ers had to do to win games last season. It was all about managing the contests and allowing Kaepernick to play within himself.
From the looks of things, the 49ers won't have nearly as many opportunities to play it so close to the vest this fall. This time, it will be about what their quarterback can do ... and whether he really is ready to take his game to a level his team sorely needs it to reach.