Craig: Teams weak at QB taking more risks

  • Article by: MARK CRAIG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 15, 2013 - 10:22 PM

In this golden era of quarterbacks, teams without a standout are doing everything possible to find one. Even Kaepernicking.

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San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick celebrates a touchdown against Green Bay.

Photo: Hector Amezcua, Associated Press/Sacramento Bee

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The Falcons were huddling a week ago when coach Mike Smith asked defensive coordinator Mike Nolan a question about Seattle's 24-year-old rookie quarterback Russell Wilson.

"I asked him, 'Who does he play like?'" Smith said. "And he said, 'Fran Tarkenton.'"

Tarkenton was the original scrambler. The Vikings' Hall of Famer used poise, quick feet and great anticipation to extend pass plays and run for his life -- and first downs -- from 1961 to 1978.

"Of course," Smith said, "you tell the players, 'Fran Tarkenton' and half of them don't know who he is."

They have a better idea now.

Wilson ran for 60 yards and a touchdown while breaking Sammy Baugh's 75-year-old rookie playoff passing record with 385 yards and two touchdowns. He also led Seattle from 20 points down in the fourth quarter to a 28-27 lead with 31 seconds left in Sunday's NFC divisional playoff game at the Georgia Dome.

But that's when Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan had the greatest half-minute of his bittersweet career. He completed two passes for 41 yards to set up Matt Bryant's game-winning 49-yard field goal.

To the victors went a date with an even more confounding first-year starting quarterback -- San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick -- in Sunday's NFC Championship Game.

"I look at these playoffs," said Troy Aikman, a Hall of Fame quarterback and Fox analyst, "and I think the people in New York have to be pretty happy about the new faces that will be their ambassadors for the league for years to come."

Smith and Nolan are huddling again this week. Good luck trying to think of any quarterback with whom the 25-year-old Kaepernick compares.

"I don't want to be categorized," said the human tattoo, whose biceps-kissing touchdown celebration has created an internet explosion of "Kaepernicking" fans.

That's good, because Kaepernick plays like someone who can't be categorized. In his playoff debut and eighth NFL start overall, Kaepernick ran for 181 yards -- a record for a quarterback in any game -- and two touchdowns while throwing for 263 yards and two more touchdowns in a 45-31 divisional playoff victory over Aaron Rodgers and the Packers.

As we exited the highest- scoring divisional round in NFL history, this much was clear: The NFL never has been in better hands -- or arms or feet -- when it comes to quarterbacks.

The postseason roll call of starting QBs began with three rookies (Wilson, Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III), three second-year players (Kaepernick, Andy Dalton and Christian Ponder), three future Hall of Famers (Rodgers, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady) and three guys in search of a signature postseason run that starts to separate greatness from real goodness (Ryan, Joe Flacco and Matt Schaub). Meanwhile, sitting home were Drew Brees, Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger, three guys with five Super Bowl rings and oodles of shelf life left.

Three weeks later, all three phases of elite QB play -- phenom (Kaepernick), dependable young veteran on the verge of a breakout postseason (Ryan and Flacco, both 27) and decorated future Hall of Famer (Brady, 35) -- will be represented in Sunday's conference title games. Flacco's 70-yard, game- tying touchdown pass in the waning seconds of regulation helped beat Manning's No. 1-seeded Broncos and set up a rematch of last year's AFC Championship Game against Brady's No. 2-seeded Patriots.

It's that heightened level of quarterback play throughout most of the league that causes teams without quarterbacks to take so many risks when it comes to finding one.

The Seahawks gambled not once, but twice last offseason. They signed Packers backup Matt Flynn, gave him $10 million guaranteed and then tossed him aside when Wilson, their third-round draft pick, outplayed Flynn in the preseason.

In San Francisco, Alex Smith was leading the league in passer rating for a 6-2-1 team when he suffered a concussion. Sensing he needed another dimension at quarterback, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh stayed with Kaepernick as his starter.

"I applauded Jim for making the decision when he did because it wasn't an easy decision to make," Aikman said. "Unfortunately, too many coaches are too worried about the criticism they're going to take to do what's best for their team."

Harbaugh was NFL Coach the Year in 2011. He reached the NFC Championship Game because he coaxed the first good season out of Smith's disappointing seven-year career.

Today, Harbaugh is 26-8-1 and heading to his second NFC Championship Game in only two seasons as an NFL head coach. The Falcons have struggled against mobile quarterbacks all season, so the controversial decision Harbaugh made two months ago could have him "Kaepernicking" all the way to New Orleans for Super Bowl XLVII.

Mark Craig • mark.craig@startribune.com

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