During the 2012 NFL regular season and playoffs, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick made the leap to superstar status. Despite playing in just 13 games last year, Kaepernick joined the ranks of the elite, at least in terms of perception, and helped lead San Francisco to the Super Bowl.
In order to thrive in 2012, Kaepernick must not gauge his success by what outsiders expect of him.
Kaepernick is facing a mountain of pressure, as the 25-year-old looks to live up to the expectations of a superstar player. Not only is he fresh off of a Super Bowl appearance, but he's looking to lead the 49ers through a deep division and maintain their label as the best in the NFC.
If that's not enough, ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski says that Kaepernick can be one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history:
"I truly believe Colin Kaepernick could be one of the greatest quarterbacks ever," Jaworski said Wednesday on ESPN. "I love his skill set. I think the sky's the limit."
Kaepernick was asked how he handles such lofty projections.
"I'm working," he responded. "To me, it's a great honor he said that. I'm very flattered by it. But at the same time, I haven't played a full season yet."
Kaepernick responded with the words that every fan was thinking.
Kaepernick has played in just 16 career regular-season games and has never played a full season in the NFL. If that's not enough, he's a 25-year-old that's being tasked with living up to MVP-caliber expectations.
In order to succeed in 2013, Kaepernick must channel a mentality similar to the player he replaced: Alex Smith.
QB Job: Win Games
When it comes to Smith, the most common criticism of him is that he has no trouble winning games but fails to dominate statistically. When it comes to Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, the complaint is that he takes over with big numbers, but fails to achieve victory.
Here's what no one wants to acknowledge—Smith got it right.
Though the quarterback position has the highest profile on a football team, a quarterback's job is the same as every other player—to win games. Running an elite offense is something that no fan or coach would complain about, but when it comes right down to it, making the smart play is often the best type of execution.
And that's the way Kaepernick must continue to play.
Kaepernick's ability to lace rocket-like passes to his receivers and break down a defense with his legs was praised in 2013, and rightfully so. The fact that few acknowledge, however, is that Kaepernick accounted for 15 touchdowns in 13 regular season games and seven in three postseason outings.
Only in one of those 18 games did Kaepernick record more than two touchdowns.
Furthermore, Kaepernick threw five interceptions in 16 total games during the the 2012 season. In other words, for all of the praise for Kaepernick's dynamic approach, it's his ability to play it safe that makes him so dangerous.
That's exactly why he must remember that his job isn't just to put points on the board but to win games.
This is not to question whether or not Kaepernick can throw for 300 yards or run for 100, as we all know he can at during any given game. What we've seen with countless young quarterbacks such as Josh Freeman and Matthew Stafford is that ability can be confused with invincibility.
Keep in mind, Kaepernick did commit nine fumbles last year, a stat unsurprising from a player receiving his first extended playing time.
This isn't a suggestion that Kaepernick limits his world-class abilities, as he truly does possess elite skills and should flash them whenever possible. Instead, this is an attempt to acknowledge what every one of the NFL's truly dominant quarterbacks knows: A mistake-free game gives you a better chance at victory than one with unnecessary risks.
Whether they're beneficial or not.
Complementing an Elite Defense
When you combine Anquan Boldin, Vernon Davis and Frank Gore with Kaepernick, the 49ers have the offensive tools to be explosive. With that being said, the 49ers are a defensive-minded team and, if they execute in the right way, can return to the Super Bowl.
Ranking second in scoring defense and fourth in both passing yards and rushing yards allowed is about as dominant as you could ask that side of the ball to be.
NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis make the most dominant inside linebacker duo in the NFL, while Aldon Smith led the NFC with 19.5 sacks and Ahmad Brooks is one of the most underrated players in the league. Add Justin Smith and you have yourself a star-studded front seven with few holes.
Where does San Francisco's defense rank?
If that's not enough, star corner Carlos Rogers will team with Tarell Brown and an inspired Nnamdi Asomugha—you know, the player who once rivaled Darrelle Revis as the best cornerback in the NFL before joining the black hole known as the Philadelphia Eagles.
There are questions at safety, but the 49ers still have one of the best defenses in the entire NFL. Even when the offense is faltering, San Francisco will be in position to win if it's defense plays up to it's standards.
And that's the key for a true Super Bowl contender.
Kaepernick can turn linebackers inside out with his swift motions and throw extraordinary passes to his receivers. He can benefit from the sure hands of Anquan Boldin, capitalize on Vernon Davis' awe-inspiring talent and supplement the running game led by Gore.
In the end, the 49ers defense simply needs the offense to outproduce their opponents. With a defensive front that can be trusted to produce consistently brilliant outings—the Niners held opponents to fewer than 25 points in 13 games and fewer than 10 in five—San Francisco is bound to experience success.
It's on Kaepernick to do what's necessary, and not what's flashy, to lead the 49ers to a Super Bowl title.