SAN FRANCISCO -- Colin Kaepernick made it all look so easy Saturday night. He galloped down the field like Secretariat at the Belmont, all challengers kept at distance, as if the Packers barely existed. He racked up 444 yards total offense in an NFL playoff game, his first playoff appearance.
One game amounts to the quintessential small sample size, unworthy of hype outside the moment, resistant to sensible projection. But 444 yards total offense -- 77 percent of the 49ers' obscene team total of 579 -- and 181 yards rushing, a new rushing record for NFL quarterbacks? That's almost two games in one. It was a transformative performance for a young player who didn't require transformation. In seven starts this season, Kaepernick had already established himself as a star on the rise, part of the new wave of QBs that will wean the NFL as Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Drew Brees age out of the game.
But in those seven starts, Kaepernick gave no indication that he could deliver 444 yards, four touchdowns, two by land and two by air, and a 45-31 victory over a very good Green Bay team. He ran like mad in college and racked up a pair of 50-yard sprints in the regular season, but Saturday's performance pushed him from "on the rise" to "already arrived."
He had barely inserted himself into the conversation about young quarterbacks, taking up just a sliver of space in a room owned by Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson. By the end of Saturday's game, every syllable of the conversation belonged to Kaepernick. On Fox, Terry Bradshaw gushed: "That was some of the best quarterbacking I've ever seen.'' Crossing over from another realm, Kevin Durant posted on his Twitter timeline: #7 is unreal.
In just 60 minutes of football, the big question hovering over Kaepernick changed from "Can he be trusted at the wheel of a playoff team?'' By the end of the first half, it had morphed into "Is he for real?" At the final whistle, it became a stream of babbling inquiry: "Can he possibly keep this up? All the way to the Super Bowl? Could anyone?''
Underestimating him at this point would be folly. He opened the game with a pick-six interception on his first possession, throwing the kind of pass that announced, "Yes, I am a second-year player with only seven starts to my name and the jitters bound to accompany anyone with such a resume into a postseason debut.''
Strangers to the Kaepernick way, and familiar with the January vulnerabilities of inexperienced quarterbacks, probably wrote him and the 49ers off right then. But, as perfectly documented in Michael Rosenberg's piece in Sports Illustrated last week, Kaepernick has a pattern of recovering from a turnover and scoring on the next possession. Jim Harbaugh, his coach and mentor, had noted this tendency before, and he did it again Saturday.
"I think that's a rare quality,'' he said.
On a trip to his hometown of Turlock two weeks earlier, I heard a collection of former coaches, teachers and friends say something similar. They recognize the facial expressions he makes after a mistake -- anger spiked with an almost devilish determination, never glum or exasperated.
"I think he's at his best when he has something to fight through,'' Philip Sanchez, his guidance counselor at Pitman High, said.
The first possession after the interception return, Kaepernick turned a 3rd-and-10 at the 49ers' 33 into a 45-yard completion to Frank Gore, spotting the open running back and precisely dropping the ball over the head of the nearest Packer and into Gore's hands. On the next third down, he rolled left, saw a clearing and took off for the end zone, covering the 20 yards in long, explosive strides.
His gait seemed to freeze the Packers, as if they couldn't calculate the right angles to pursue him. He runs like a receiver or Olympic sprinter, not someone coming out of the backfield. Even Michael Vick, whose rushing record Kaepernick eviscerated, looks compact on the run by comparison.
The Packers came into this game planning to blitz the poise out of the 25-year-old, and they didn't abandon the idea when Kaepernick made them pay and pay and pay. They couldn't adjust to the 49ers' new emphasis on read-option plays, implemented more than at any time in the regular season. They kept throwing their money down and watching it scatter under Kaepernick's feet. They finally backed off, and Kaepernick still mugged them. They bit on a fake handoff to Gore, and while they devoured the running back, the quarterback's legs ate up 56 yards in no time.
Gore racked up 119 rushing yards, which really should be enough to keep a running back from sitting behind his QB on the stats sheet. Kaepernick also outdid Aaron Rodgers, the reigning MVP, 263 yards passing to 257.
But the stats don't begin to explain what he did, how assuredly he took apart the Packers, like a predator toying with a living snack. He affirmed Harbaugh's decision to keep Alex Smith on the bench after he had recovered from a concussion, unnerving 49ers fans who saw Kaepernick as the unripened future.
"Everybody that was second-guessing the decision to move from Alex to him,'' safety Donte Whitner said. "I don't think they'll be questioning it anymore.''
What they saw Saturday was a performance that Smith could never have approached, much less duplicated. No one could have. It was a singular performance.
Can it carry over to the NFC title game and then the Super Bowl? Defenses may be able to adjust, and the fear of injury looms over every run by a quarterback.
Back in high school, his coaches let him run so infrequently that when he tore off an impressive sprint, they played with the game tape. When they screened it for the team, the footage of the run carried a sarcastic caption: "Kaeper-vick.''
Now, here he was, surpassing Vick, surpassing any reasonable expectations, and doing it all as if in a flow. It shouldn't have looked so easy.