NFL quarterbacks are some of the most revered athletes in all of professional sports. The great ones are the ones who have accumulated noteworthy statistics throughout their career and have backed those numbers up with Super Bowl victories and Super Bowl MVPs.
All of the greats earn their stature in the game in different ways and it is impossible to accurately quantify and weight all of the various tangible and intangible qualities that translate into an all-time great quarterback.
Is it simply playing on a very good team and making a lot of clutch plays? Is it accuracy in and out of the pocket? Is it mental toughness? What about arm strength? Knowledge of the offense and opponents' defense? All of the above and then some?
Regardless of their importance, all of the above qualities--and many more--are found in great quarterbacks to varying extents. Quarterbacks who display all of the requisite physical and mental acumen early in their careers may not always take the leap to the highest level of greatness (Dan Fouts, Jim Kelly, Fran Tarkenton), but for the most part, those that have an abundance of those qualities at least reach the precipice of greatness.
The San Francisco 49ers' Colin Kaepernick plays on one of the deepest, most talented and well-coached teams in the NFL, a formula that shows no signs of changing anytime soon. So he already has a head start on many great quarterbacks who have come into the league or the starting position playing on a team near the bottom of the league's barrel.
I love what Kaepernick can do on the field. Obviously, the guy is a physical freak with elite arm strength and speed and flashes of elite accuracy with the ball. But he's also smart. He had a 4.0 GPA at the University of Nevada, Reno and he scored a 37 on the Wonderlic test at the NFL combine. The average at quarterback is a 24. Recent studies indicate that the mean score for all players, excluding offensive linemen, is 21.04 with a standard deviation of 7.15. That puts Kaepernick more than two standard deviations above the mean. In other words, he is a very smart football player.
Furthermore, Kaepernick proved on Monday Night Football against the Chicago Bears that he can translate his intelligence to the football field. The Niners run a complex scheme that also gives the quarterback multiple plays in the huddle and he has to make the right call at the line of scrimmage. Kaepernick had to make about 10 or 15 changes in that game and all but one or two of them were correct. But, it bears mention that the Bears do not get very fancy on defense with a lot of pre-snap shifting and different looks.
What Vernon Davis said about Kaepernick was very telling. He was quoted after the game saying that on one of his long catches he was surprised to turn and see the ball coming his way because it was a very tough throw that is never thrown to him on that particular play as a result. It was a tight window downfield that required velocity instead of an accurate throw with more air under it.
Kaepernick can make throws that Alex Smith and many others can't. While Smith makes good decisions, a lot of them are based on him understanding his own limitations rather than his ability to see the whole field. In that respect, while Kaepernick needs to make smart decisions with the ball as well, he simply does not face as many tough decisions due to what he can do with his arm. The fact is that he has the capacity in that right arm of his to turn any throw on the field into an easy, safe pull of the trigger with the ball.
But most importantly, when the pocket collapses and he gets flushed out, Kaepernick has shown a knack for keeping the ball up and his eyes downfield as he scampers toward the line of scrimmage, something I absolutely love in a quarterback. Joe Montana did it to perfection. Too often we see quarterbacks get flushed out of the pocket and just take off like a startled gazelle in the middle of poaching season, rather than try to buy more time behind the line of scrimmage as they move up or laterally with pump fakes.
Kaepernick is guilty of taking off prematurely or haphazardly at times—more so against St. Louis than Chicago—but also does so often as part of a designed play call. Otherwise, quarterbacks should always be looking to throw no matter what until they are forced to cross the line of scrimmage or face an inevitable collision. Then they can run or slide, but not beforehand.
Aaron Rodgers moves up in or out of the pocket while looking downfield very well. Both Manning brothers do it at a high level, and Ben Roethlisberger does it moving up in the pocket as well as anyone in the league today. John Elway was exceptional at it throughout his career as well.
Watch old Joe Montana highlights. It might be the one thing that really cements his status as the greatest of all quarterbacks more than anything else, other than the purest of pure accuracy, his four rings and three Super Bowl MVPs. It is more instinctual than anything else and comes from pocket presence and field awareness; a quarterback really has to know who's around him to move out of the pocket under pressure well and still be in a position to get off a quick, precise throw without getting the ball knocked out of his hand.
If a quarterback just tucks it and runs, it allows the whole defense to immediately disregard the pass and come after him. If he can move around under duress with the ball in one hand ready to cock and fire much quicker, there are many more yards available to him. In this respect, I also love Kaepernick's ability to throw some of the shorter passes from multiple arm angles.
I see some of the same sort of pocket escapability and aptitude on throws moving laterally in either direction that Joe Montana possessed in Kaepernick as well, albeit only in flashes at this point. If those flashes become longer and brighter, combined with all of his physical and mental tools, he could be the next great quarterback in the NFL.
It is the instinctive type of plays which make the difference between a really good quarterback and a great one when all else is equal. What can make Colin Kaepernick the next great, Super Bowl-winning quarterback is the fact that he can make the instinctual plays and by virtue of his immense physical talent and fortunate team situation, all else is not equal.