At some point during this NFL season, it became clear that the league is changing, the limits of playing quarterback quickly expanding: young athletes equally threatening through the air and on the ground, improvising their steps, confounding defenses with fakes and jukes.
Cam Newton had foreshadowed the new era in 2011, throwing for more than 4,000 yards while running for more touchdowns than any QB in history. Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson presented a blueprint for how this breed of QB could take over the league, skewing our perception of what it means to be a "running quarterback" and proving that spread option philosophies can work in the pros.
But it was Colin Kaepernick-- the latest to emerge and the rawest of the group-- who showcased the mesmerizing possibilities, who provided the signature performance of his cohort of, for lack of a better word, superquarterbacks.
On Saturday night, as the 49ers beat the Green Bay Packers 45-31, Kaepernick reached a Tecmo-Superbowl-Bo-Jackson level of dominance. The numbers tell part of the story: 181 rushing yards, 263 passing yards, two rushing touchdowns, two passing touchdowns.
The scenes tell more: the 44-yard dime he dropped into Vernon Davis' hands late in the third quarter, looking off the defense with a pump fake before launching the ball downfield; the 20-yard zipline touchdown he shot to Michael Crabtree in the second quarter; the turbo boosts he showed whenever he exploded through the line of scrimmage on a scramble; the way he spun around Clay Matthews with his option fakes; his open-field speed as he raced past the defense for 20- and 56-yard touchdown runs.
It was the most dominant superquarterback performance this season, and it happened on the biggest stage any of them have played on. He's the last one left, the new breed representative among the traditional faces: Tom Brady, Joe Flacco, Matt Ryan.
It's fitting that two of the best young quarterbacks in the league-- Kaepernick and Griffin-- have, respectively, tattoo-sleeves and shoulder-length braids.
For decades, the quarterback-- the most important position in America's most important sport-- has symbolized many of society's favorite traits: leadership, intelligence, chisel-jaw handsomeness, poise under pressure, toughness. And for decades, with notably few exceptions, the position has had a uniform template: tall, "clean-cut" white guys-- Manning, Brady, Brees, Rodgers, Ryan, Favre, Young, Aikman, Marino, Elway, Montana, and so on down the line. That physical template, consequently, has come to embody those traits.
But the template is changing. It is turning more inclusive, more representative of America-- right down to the ethnic ambiguity of Kaepernick and Wilson. And as the look of the position has widened, so has its game. The spread option has become a staple for several successful teams. Saying somebody is an "athletic quarterback" no longer implies that he cannot throw accurately. As Kaepernick, Griffin, and Wilson have shown, the quarterback can be the centerpiece of a run-oriented offensive attack-- not because a quarterback is a deficient pocket passer, but because orthodox NFL playbooks constrain his skill set.
This transition is playing out elegantly, as if consciously constructed by the football gods. The AFC-- with Manning, Brady, Ben Roethlisberger and young stars Andrew Luck and Andy Dalton-- is preserving the old guard. The NFC is home to the new breed. The NFC West, with two of the premier superquarterbacks, is at the frontier of the paradigm shift. And, fresh off one of the most impressive playoff performances of all-time, Kaepernick has become the face of the next generation of quarterbacks.
Welcome to the future.