Who is a better quarterback right now, Colin Kaepernick or Andrew Luck?
I could give you a simple answer. I have a gut feeling it’s Luck and I could validate it but that is not the responsible answer. Reality is not simple. Let’s not deal in simplicity. Let’s deal in reality, which is complicated and rich.
At this time, Luck is slightly superior at reading defenses and following pass progressions than Kaepernick. But that’s to be expected. Luck had the advantage of playing at Stanford in a pro-style offense, and of playing under Jim Harbaugh sooner than Kaepernick. Kaepernick played at University of Nevada in an option offense focused on his running ability. He’s just now learning what Luck learned in college.
Kaepernick throws harder than Luck but Luck is more accurate and a better pro-style pocket passer right now. Kaepernick can improve his passing with experience and a full complement of receivers, and may eventually be Luck’s equal.
Kaepernick runs faster than Luck. Kaepernick is the Platonic Ideal of a dual-threat quarterback. Steve Young used to be that ideal but now it is Kaepernick because he is bigger and faster and a more natural thrower than Young or any other quarterback ever.
Luck is the Platonic Ideal of a pro-style quarterback. He can dissect a defense from the pocket and pass like Peyton Manning, but Luck also can run and improvise. He’s not as fast as Kaepernick but Luck is a very good runner even though he doesn’t look it. He grew up playing soccer in Europe when his dad, Oliver, was the president of NFL Europe.
Here’s another way to compare and contrast Kaepernick and Luck: Could they replace each other on the 49ers and the Colts and run the other quarterback’s offense as well or better? A key question and a tough one to answer because there are so many issues to contend with.
In the old days, John Elway and Jim Kelly and Dan Marino could run virtually any offense in the NFL. But Bernie Kosar probably could not, although he was efficient at running the Browns’ offense. So while Kosar had a slightly better career passer rating than Elway, Elway clearly was the superior, more versatile player.
The 49ers’ are a run-first and play-action offense. That takes pressure off Kaepernick, the passer. The 49ers currently average a league-low 26 pass attempts per game. They have great blockers on the offensive line and at tight end and fullback, and the Colts don’t. There is no way the Colts could succeed at the 49ers’ run game. The Colts don’t place much of an emphasis on power football on the ground.
Could Luck run the 49ers’ offense, mostly handing off the ball or faking the handoff and throwing deep? Absolutely. Last Sunday night, the Broncos shut down the Colts’ running backs but Luck still threw three touchdowns and he ran for one. He out-Manninged Peyton Manning.
Kaepernick may not be able to run the Colts’ offense like Luck right now, scanning the entire field for an open receiver before scrambling. But if the Colts’ had Kaepernick they could run the read-option every once in a while and that would make their offense even more difficult to prepare for and defend.
It finally comes down to what your preference is – pro-style or dual-threat.
Some prefer pro-style quarterbacks because they don’t take the hits dual-threat quarterbacks take when they run and that generally is true. But in Kaepernick’s case that may not be true. He has run the ball 707 times in college and the NFL and never has missed a game due to injury. He’s strong and durable and terrific at avoiding big hits.
At the beginning of this column, I wrote that Luck is better than Kaepernick and I could validate my opinion. With this topic, you can paint the picture any way you like and validate it. It’s like arguing who is a better painter, Rembrandt or Renoir?
It’s all in the eye of the beholder.
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.