NEW ORLEANS — Colin Kaepernick, like his Super Bowl-playing predecessors at quarterback, represents the future of the NFL.
Like Joe Montana and the West Coast offense and Steve Young and his mobility, Kaepernick is a victory away from becoming the first quarterback to win in a way many thought once impossible.
Kaepernick is a running quarterback. But he's also a passing quarterback. Young was both, but he was more of a scrambler than a runner. Kaepernick, on the other hand, can both run and pass within the 49ers offense and with equal skill.
San Francisco's offense is a melting pot of plays, but the plays run out of the pistol formation are the ones that make Kaepernick special. The Redskins used the pistol this season with quarterback Robert Griffin III and also reached the playoffs.
The Eagles, with new coach Chip Kelly, are likely to run a variant of the offense next season, dependent upon, of course, whom they have under center.
Hailing Kaepernick as the future may seem premature, especially considering that the 49ers still have the formidable Ravens standing in their way. But the second-year quarterback, the adopted child of mixed race, is already being considered the latest in the evolution of the position.
"Colin is one of the rarest athletes I have been around, and I have been around a lot of them," 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. "I think he is one of the rarest athletes in the NFL at the position. A guy that can throw it with such accuracy, run, and have the mind he has — it is a dangerous weapon."
If it wasn't for Alex Smith's concussion in Week 10, the 49ers may have never been able to use their secret weapon full-time. But when Kaepernick filled in and added another facet to the offense, coach Jim Harbaugh decided he had no other choice but to stick with him.
While Kaepernick sat behind Smith to start the season. Griffin was tearing through offenses on the ground and through the air. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan implemented the pistol into the Redskins' scheme, cribbing from ex-Nevada coach Chris Ault, who created the formation.
In 2004, Ault developed the set, which has the quarterback standing behind the center, similar to the shotgun, but only 4 yards in the backfield and with a running back directly behind him.
The formation gave Ault a vast combination of plays in which both the pass or run could be utilized.
"I think it will have staying power in the league," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said.
Kaepernick, who had turned down an offer to play baseball in the Cubs organization after being drafted, arrived at Nevada in 2007. He ran like the wind in Ault's pistol but needed to develop into a passer as he altered his sidearm throwing motion to one that was more over the top.
He threw for more than 3,000 yards as a senior, and Harbaugh selected him early in the second round after quarterbacks Cam Newton, Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder, and Andy Dalton were taken ahead of him in the first round.
The 6-foot-4, 230-pound Kaepernick sat for most of the 2011 season, but the 49ers started sneaking him in for various plays through the first eight games of this season. When Smith went down in November, Harbaugh and Roman said they were confident they wouldn't miss a beat with Kaepernick.
Harbaugh had used the read-option at Stanford, but he inserted the pistol plays into the offense to cater more to Kaepernick's strengths. That doesn't mean the pistol is all he can do.
In seven regular-season starts, Kaepernick averaged 229.7 passing yards and 34 rushing yards. But in the second-round playoff win over the Packers, he ran for an NFL quarterback record 181 yards and two touchdowns.
The following week, Kaepernick rushed only twice but completed 76.2 percent of his passes and threw for 233 yards in the NFC championship victory over the Falcons.
"Any offense is an offense to try and put points on the board," said the soft-spoken Kaepernick. "You can call it a gimmick. You can call it a 'trick-em' offense. You can call it whatever you want. If it is putting points on the board, it is effective."