For the second straight year, the San Francisco 49ers' championship hopes were dashed by a misjudged pass in the end zone. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick's furious comeback attempt fell short once again, leaving the third-year signal-caller shouldering a hefty amount of criticism.
Kaepernick indeed blamed himself for the NFC Championship Game loss to the Seattle Seahawks (per NFL.com's Dan Hanzus), and three turnovers in the fourth quarter make that difficult to argue. Then again, the true question here doesn't lie in blame for the past.
More appropriately, where does Kaepernick go from here?
In a way, the NFC Championship Game was a microcosm of Kaepernick's entire season, complete with both flashes of brilliance and brutal miscues. During a roller-coaster season with seemingly endless scrutiny, it was easy to forget that the young quarterback was still in his first full season as the starter.
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After struggling early on, Kaepernick found his groove late in the season with the return of wide receiver Michael Crabtree. A late eight-game winning streak showcased the quarterback's jaw-dropping potential but also left many looking for more.
One such pundit was none other than former 49ers quarterback Joe Montana, who touched on the abilities of his heir under center in an interview with Jarrett Bell of USA Today. The 49ers legend was critical of Kaepernick's accuracy and pocket presence, but he also had advice for the budding superstar:
I like [Kaepernick's] mobility and that he's getting the ball downfield. But sometimes, he needs to be more accurate in the pocket with pressure.
The game is changing. Nobody wants to throw with pressure anymore. But the guys who can win in this league are the ones who can make throws from the pocket.
Montana's comments called to mind those of ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer, who infamously called Kaepernick a "remedial" passer in November. While Dilfer later clarified his remarks with Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle, the former NFL quarterback still asserted that San Francisco's starter improved most by becoming less hesitant.
Kaepernick is at his best when he is both decisive and loose, which contributed to his 130-yard rushing performance in the NFC Championship Game. On the flip side, hesitant moments sometimes coincided with staring down his receivers, as best seen by two postseason plays.
This first play came on the game-winning drive in the 49ers' victory over the Green Bay Packers, but was almost thwarted by cornerback Micah Hyde. As Kaepernick locked on to wide receiver Anquan Boldin, Hyde jumped the route and dropped an interception with plenty of open field ahead.
Against Seattle two weeks later, Kaepernick once again stared down Boldin with Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor firmly in between them. Whether the gunslinging quarterback saw Chancellor or not is unclear, but he also made little effort to disguise his intentions en route to a critical interception.
These types of troubling plays lead to most of his criticisms, but Kaepernick is focused on reversing these growing pains throughout his game. According to Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area, Kaepernick is concerned with simply growing his overall game rather than solely focusing on his pocket presence.
Of course, that's not to say that the 26-year-old quarterback won't be hard at work.
Taylor Price of 49ers.com identified Kaepernick as the first 49ers player back at the team facility following their playoff defeat, already looking ahead. Rookie receiver Quinton Patton had also made offseason plans to train with the quarterback in Miami in the coming weeks:
In addition to pocket work, Kaepernick listed "throwing on the run [and] going through progressions quicker" as areas of improvement, according to Maiocco. However, Seahawks safety Earl Thomas offered some valuable perspective in a blog post on his personal website.
From Thomas' perspective, 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman seemed to game-plan for Kaepernick to hold on to the ball more in the third meeting between the teams. While the 49ers quarterback rushed with more success than ever before against Seattle, Thomas was also stricken by his play through the air:
[Kaepernick] also throws one of the hardest balls in the league, almost like a baseball player, and it comes out like a fastball. Hot. The play I had against Boldin in the end zone, Kaepernick was jumping up in mid-air as he threw. That was a dime. I was kind of surprised he even threw it. They usually don’t when I’m that close in the area.
Coming from an All-Pro safety in an unprompted blog, it's worth considering this praise in the big picture for Kaepernick.
Outside pundits can criticize the quarterback after all of 23 regular-season starts, but it's also important to recognize his unique skill set. While questions circle around his ability to progress, there's also an element to his game that is undervalued: confidence.
The gunslinger mentality has its ups and downs, but it's necessary at times to put the team over the top. The final play of the NFC Championship Game has appeared on the covers of newspapers and magazines, but the decision itself wasn't particularly wrong.
Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman stepped up and ultimately made the play, but the throw was only a few inches away from resulting in a touchdown. A risky call for sure, but it was execution more than the decision that cost the 49ers an all-time NFL Films moment.
At the beginning of the fourth quarter, the Seahawks' gamble on a 4th-and-7 resulted in what went down as the game-winning score. That risk put the Seahawks in the Super Bowl; Kaepernick's risk simply fell short.
Many quarterbacks would have shied away from that throw, but most quarterbacks haven't had the early success that Kaepernick has had. While he has room to grow, an unwavering faith in your own ability is a foundation that can be built upon.
So, take a step back and enjoy the ride, 49ers fans. We've only just scratched the surface with Colin Kaepernick.
Tom Smeaton covers the San Francisco 49ers as a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. His season never ends on Twitter at @smeaton49.