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Colin Kaepernick, Steve DeBerg, and More …


This post was written by Peter Babb

Maybe there were draft experts in 1979, when the 49ers drafted Joe Montana in the third round. If there were, they might have said the same things The Sporting News said about Colin Kaepernick:

"Is a smart young man who can take control of the offense in key situations and gets his teammates to raise the level of their play. Has a knack for coming through with the big play when his team needs it most."

If it translates to the NFL, boy do the 49ers have a great prospect. Because, all the physical aspects are there with Kaepernick. Kaepernick is big, fast, strong, and tough. He’s 6-4, 225, and runs a 4.4 40 yard dash. That’s faster than any other 2011 draft quarterback prospect worth drafting.

After ranking Kaepernick as the number two quarterback prospect in the draft, The Sporting News went on to say:

"Although Kaepernick won’t be drafted as highly as he is rated here, he will eventually develop into a good starting QB who has the ability to make game-changing plays with his feet and his arm."

Coach Jim Harbaugh is just the man to develop this prospect. The 49ers could have drafted any quarterback, except the mystical Cam Newton, but this is the guy they traded up to get. In a film session with the 49er beat writers, Daniel Brown quoted Trent Balke as saying the following as he broke down Kaepernick’s play at Nevada:

"His arm strength is unique – he has a big time arm."

Sounds like Steve Young, and then Balke went on to say,

"Look at his eyes. He came back to his right and threw it over the first line of defense and dropped it in the hole. The whole time, he stood tall in the pocket. This is life in the NFL …"


"There are guys who need everything to be right. In the NFL, very seldom is everything right. They’ve got to be able to throw off their back foot. They’ve got to be able to throw off their back foot. They’ve got to be able to drop their elbow and throw it out of the side window. So, you’re looking for guys who can change those planes, whether it’s with the arm or with the feet. It’s not like you’re in the backyard playing catch."

We know Kaepernick can run and make plays out of the pocket, and doesn’t that sound good, but the 49er staff also believes he can run the offense. He seems to be a gunslinger, and that means the blocking doesn’t have to be perfect every play, which fits the 49ers’ 2011 line to a tee.

In his book, Finding the Winning Edge, Coach Bill Walsh had this to say about quarterbacks:

"If throwing a ball was the only aspect of playing quarterback, evaluating the position of quarterback would be a relatively simple task. Because of the dynamic role that a quarterback plays on a team, he must have the physical, mental, emotional and instinctive traits that go well beyond his ability to pass the football. A quarterback, for example, must be courageous and intensely competitive."

It sounds eerily like what’s been written about Colin Kaepernick. I’d rather have a quarterback whose primary criticism is a “funky” throwing motion than a guy without the drive to win. Once he was drafted, he immediately jumped in his car to drive over and meet with Coach Harbaugh – with his college production, physical ability, and intangibles, that’s as good as it gets.

The best way to develop Kaepernick is the one used with Joe Montana and Steve Young, where he gets to play more and more, but isn’t expected to immediately run the team. In Young’s case, this was due primarily to injuries suffered by Montana. However, in Montana’s case, it was a planned succession. Steve DeBerg was the 49er starter for Montana’s first two years.

DeBerg was saddled with the somewhat unfair reputation of “Just good enough to get you beat,” but he played for 19 years in the NFL. He had character and could lead a team. Overall, his career quarterback rating was 74.2 and he threw more interceptions than touchdowns (204/196); his career completion percentage was 57.2%. His role at the start of his career, with the 49ers, once it became clear DeBerg wasn’t going to be good enough to lead the team long term, was to teach the West Coast offense to the team as Montana developed, so that they were ready when he took over.

The transition season was 1980, two years into Montana’s career. During that season, DeBerg had 321 pass attempts, Montana 273. What jumps out is that Montana’s quarterback rating was 87.8, while DeBerg was at 66.7. It was reported at the time that Coach Walsh deliberately inserted Montana into situations where he could succeed, letting DeBerg take the abuse on a weak 49er team.

So, who will play the Steve DeBerg role for the 2011 49ers? Well, it might just be Alex Smith. I don’t know what to think any more about Alex Smith. He’s got character and talent, but it just hasn’t worked out. I can certainly understand why he would be attractive to the 49ers given this mess of an off season, since he would have fewer variables than other veteran quarterbacks due to his familiarity with his teammates.

There’s no doubt he would fill the DeBerg role effectively. Smith would win games, but he’d also have us tearing our hair and rending our garments on a regular basis. And the fact is, some team like Cleveland or Arizona might outbid the 49ers for him as their transition quarterback, or maybe more; Steve DeBerg played for 15 seasons and five teams after he left the 49ers, and at least three of those teams believed he was a quality starter.

On the other hand, if you’re sensing a lack of excitement here, consider what Evan Silva had to say about Smith as a veteran prospect in 2011:

"Smith was the No. 1 pick in the 2005 draft, but his downfall was directly attributable to middle-round talent. He has average arm strength, has been injury prone, is easily rattled, and his accuracy hasn’t improved since his Utah days. Smith is not an aggressive football player. Though intelligent, Smith is not a quick thinker on the field and prefers quick check downs to vertical strikes. He’s moderately athletic and has played in every type of offense imaginable."

I think that’s what makes a semi-successful veteran like Carson Palmer instinctively attractive – he has the potential to make the 49ers competitive during Kaepernick’s early career. Then he’ll get blown up with injuries and Kaepernick can slide in. I just don’t see Cincinnati trading him for David Carr and a 2012 third round draft pick; it’s a matter of pride for them, since they don’t want to start letting players negotiate their way out of town, and they’d want a lot more than that to save face.

And Silva was pretty brutal about the 2011 Palmer as well:

"Palmer is a different player than the quarterback who came out of USC in 2003. the 31-year-old’s mobility has been all but eliminated a 2006 ACL and MCL tear with meniscus damage, and Palmer’s arm strength was adversely affected by ligament and tendon tears in his right (throwing) elbow in 2008. Palmer’s passes tend to flutter, especially in the intermediate to deep range. He’s had two winning seasons in his career. Palmer’s talent is now more that of a top-20 quarterback than a top-10, and ideally he would be protected by a top-notch line plus running game."

So even if Palmer became a possibility, would he really be that much better that Smith in 2011?

Ironically, I think we’ll see more of Colin Kaepernick in 2011 due to the lockout, because the offense will be more limited and so easier for a rookie to run. And every play he’s in there will feel like it could be a big play. From the 49er fan’s perspective, that’s the first reason why Kaepernick was a great draft pick.4