This is my Thursday column.
Jim Harbaugh isn’t helping Colin Kaepernick. All this talk of greatness is a burden.
Here’s what Harbaugh said at Sunday’s postgame press conference: “(Kaepernick) is a great player. I don’t know how everybody else doesn’t see it that way. Great with a capital ‘G.’ At the highest level of great.”
Never mind that Kaepernick’s passer rating ranks 17th in the NFL. Never mind that he has been a B-plus quarterback his whole career. Never mind that he has not improved. Harbaugh says he’s great.
Compare Harbaugh to his rival, Pete Carroll. Carroll spoke about Russell Wilson on a conference call with Bay Area reporters this week. Vic Fangio had compared Wilson’s running ability to Barry Sanders’ a few hours before, so a reporter Carroll if he agreed with the comparison.
“No,” Carroll explained.
“You think that comparison is a bit much?” The reporter asked.
“I know Vic coached against Barry back in the day,” Carroll said, “and I don’t know if there ever has been a player who makes a defensive coach or coordinator cringe more and tense up more when you watch him play because he could score from anywhere on the field. I think he’s really one of the great open-field guys that has ever played this game.
“I don’t know if Russell’s ready for that right now. Every now and then he gets out and makes a few yards and tries to get out of bounds without getting hit – that’s not at all like Barry Sanders. In all respect to Vic’s comments, they’re both smaller than most guys at their positions.”
Listening to Carroll, you’d think Wilson is a good, little player. Listening to Harbaugh, you’d think Kaepernick is the second coming of Y.A. Tittle, Joe Montana and Steve Young all rolled into one.
None of this is new. Harbaugh created larger-than-life expectations from the onset of Kaepernick’s career.
Harbaugh made Kaepernick the anointed one. Kaepernick never beat out Alex Smith in training camp for the starting job. But Smith beat out Kaepernick twice in preseason head-to-head competition. Smith was a veteran who led the team to the playoffs in 2011. He played even better in 2012 before he got a concussion.
That’s when Harbaugh gifted the starting job to Kaepernick based on Harbaugh’s projection or vision or hunch that Kaepernick would be great. Harbaugh turned Kaepernick into a controversial figure – some players on the team were pro-Smith, others were pro-Kaepernick. Harbaugh put tremendous pressure on Kaepernick to justify Harbaugh’s decision and to live up to Harbaugh’s image of him.
Kaepernick could not go through the normal growing pains a young quarterback goes through. Harbaugh created the perception that Kaepernick could just bypass that stage of his career altogether. He had already arrived.
Carroll never created that perception for Wilson. Carroll never anointed Wilson, either. And he never put on the pressure.
Wilson was a third-round pick to begin with. He played three unspectacular seasons at North Carolina State. Before his senior season, it was clear the North Carolina State coaching staff preferred Wilson’s backup, Mike Glennon, currently on the Buccaneers. So Wilson signed a minor-league-baseball contract with the Rockies. Then he transferred to the University of Wisconsin to play quarterback for a run-first program.
The Seahawks didn’t draft Wilson expecting him to become a superstar or their franchise guy. The Seahawks took a shot on a 5-foot-10 pipsqueak who might be better suited playing second base.
Wilson’s rookie season during training camp, the pipsqueak flat out beat out veteran quarterback Matt Flynn. No controversy. Wilson earned the job. I doubt there were any pro-Flynn Seahawks, except for maybe Flynn.
This allowed Carroll to make Wilson’s job easy. Wilson earned the right to start as a beginner and to learn and grow on the job. At first, Carroll made Wilson a move-around guy – a quarterback who mostly rolls out and scrambles. Carroll would be happy if Wilson could throw 18 times and complete 11 of them per game.
Carroll created a low-pressure, low-scrutiny environment in contrast to Harbaugh who created a high-pressure, high-scrutiny environment. Harbaugh put a microscope on Kaepernick. First, Kaepernick had to prove he was better than Smith, something Kaepernick still has yet to do. Now, Kaepernick has to prove he’s great, something he isn’t, just because Harbaugh said he is.
Neither Kaepernick nor Wilson is great. They’re basically the same quarterback, give or take a few inches. Neither guy is a premier pocket passer. Each has periods when he doesn’t see an open receiver or he bounces a pass or he overthrows someone downfield. Both improvise well. Kaepernick is faster. Wilson is quicker.
Both rely on their athleticism. Both need to master the mental side of the game. As they age, their athleticism will erode and their football intelligence must grow to compensate. The more a quarterback studies, the more he can let the system work for him.
Will Kaepernick reach that level of mastery?
How could he if Harbaugh insists he’s already “at the highest level of great?” Move over, Joe and Steve and Y.A. The great one has arrived.
Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.