Harbaugh Bowl: Is Colin Kaepernick Elite?

By Christopher Gamble
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Colin Kaepernick has taken the NFL by storm and has led the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl after taking over for Alex Smith midway through the 2012 season. The question, however, is whether or not Kaepernick is an elite quarterback.

With only half of a season to go off of , it isn’t easy to come to a definitive conclusion; but, there is some evidence to make a case for Kaepernick.

Kaepernick took over for Alex Smith against the St. Louis Rams on November 11th which resulted in a 24-24 tie. However, Kaepernick offered a glimpse of what was to come, completing 64.7 percent of his passes for 117 yards and rushing for 66 more yards along with a rushing touchdown. The next week Kaepernick and the 49ers beat the Chicago Bears with Kaepernick throwing for 243 yards and 2 TDs while completing almost 70 percent of his passes.

His best performance came against the New England Patriots on December 16th when he threw for 221 yards on 14 of 25 passing with 4 TDs.

On the season Kaepernick completed 62.4 percent of his passes for 1,814 yards with 10 TDs and 3 INTs while averaging 6.6 yards per carry on the ground, gaining 415 yards on 63 attempts and another 5 TDs.  Those are certainly very good numbers and over a full season would have translated into numbers that would have put him the conversation with the elite quarterbacks in the league.

Kaepernick began the playoffs rushing for 181 yards on 16 attempts and 2 TDs against the Green Bay Packers. He set an NFL record for rushing yards in a game by a quarterback. He also passed for 263 yards and 2 TDs but did throw an interception.

For some reason, it has become standard procedure to classify quarterbacks as elite or not and a measuring tool seems to be whether or not a quarterback can take his team to the Super Bowl. Certainly the ability to lift a team in a big game is a requirement for a quarterback to be classified as elite, but what truly makes a quarterback elite?

Was Jim Kelly not an elite quarterback because he never won a Super Bowl? What about Fran Tarkenton or Dan Marino? Certainly those three were elite but never won a Super Bowl. Does that degrade their ability to play the position or lead a team to victory? If Kaepernick walks away from Sunday’s game with a victory does that vault him into the upper pantheon of all-time quarterbacks?

Winning the Super Bowl can’t be the only measuring stick as to whether or not a quarterback is elite, because we would be talking about Doug Williams and Trent Dilfer as being better quarterbacks than Marino and Kelly or even Tony Romo, and that is just not the case.

Right now, the evidence suggests Kaepernick is capable of leading his team, of being a game-changing quarterback. To be elite one has to play at a certain level for a given amount of time. Obviously, Kaepernick hasn’t even been a starter for a full season. Is he a quarterback a team can build a franchise around? Absolutely, and the 49ers and Jim Harbaugh are doing just that.

It took a lot of faith for Harbaugh to stick with Kaepernick over incumbent starter Alex Smith after Smith returned healthy. Smith led the 49ers to the brink of the Super Bowl last season and if it hadn’t been for bad special teams play we might be looking at this situation totally differently, asking whether or not Alex Smith was elite.

Kaepernick’s elite status in the NFL will not come down to Sunday. If he loses, he won’t be knocked down a peg. However, if he wins, he will be on a path to becoming an elite quarterback in this league. A victory in the Super Bowl will cause the analysts to utter Kaepernick’s name in hushed and reverent tones, the man who defeated Ray Lewis and the Baltimore Ravens, who won a Super Bowl as a second-year quarterback and first-year starter.

It is too early to decide whether Kaepernick is elite but he is certainly a franchise quarterback at the moment, and is on his way to elite status. A win Sunday does just that. However, in order to be elite you have to sustain success. Can Kaepernick sustain this success is the real question.

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