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Lowell Cohn: Early in career, Colin Kaepernick on par with legends


SANTA CLARA -- It's an off-day for 49ers football. The Green Bay game recedes in the rearview mirror. The Seattle game looms in the distance. And that means it's time for a midweek thought question:

Is Colin Kaepernick more advanced than Joe Montana and Steve Young at a similar stage of their careers?

We are not asking if Kaepernick is better or will be better or is nicer. We are asking where they stand — and stood — at this stage, Season Three.

Got that?

For starters, let's consult 49ers' coach Jim Harbaugh who considered the question in a hallway at 49ers' headquarters after his Monday news conference.

"Even to ask the question or suppose the question is a great compliment to Colin," he said. "I would imagine that, in his interest, he would want to leave it there. I'm flattered that the question is even supposed. Those are two great players, two Hall of Fame players. It's a bit (much) to put him on the same dance floor as those people right now and start making comparisons. He's doing just fine. That's quite a compliment that you would even ask the question and, I guess, for Colin's sake, we'll just leave it at that."

It was a fair answer. Harbaugh refused to encroach on two cornerstones of 49ers' history and he refused to put pressure on his own guy. We appreciate his diplomacy and tact. We'll try to answer the question on our own just because the question is out there, dangling, delicious and enticing.

Colin Kaepernick is ahead of Steve Young in his third year as an NFL quarterback. One assumes Young would agree wholeheartedly. And remember no one is comparing the entire careers of Young and Kaepernick. Kaepernick has not had an entire career. Young was a league MVP and Kaepernick is not, although he could get there.

It's just that Young was a running quarterback when he graduated from BYU. He was a runner more than a thrower, quarterback as halfback. He started at the L.A. Express of the USFL where he met the legendary Sid Gillman. Bill Walsh once said of Gillman's offensive philosophy, "Sid was Star Wars compared to everyone else."

Gillman noticed Young's footwork — he had none. He taught Young that footwork had everything to do with throwing the ball. After L.A., Young languished in Tampa and then he came to San Francisco where he did not languish. But he sat and he learned behind Joe Montana and he learned from Bill Walsh — learned to become a passer. He did this for years. Walsh would say, later on, Young was the best athlete he ever saw play quarterback. Walsh did not see Kaepernick.

At a certain point, Walsh thought maybe Young was ready to supplant Montana. One day he called a meeting of his coaches and asked if any thought Young should take over for Montana. Not one coach raised his hand. It was left for George Seifert to make the change after Walsh retired.

The point? Young would become an all-time-great quarterback. But he took time. In his third year, he was nowhere near Kaepernick.

What about Montana?

Well, that's interesting. Montana is the standard for quarterback play. A year or two before he died, Walsh watched film of Montana for a speech he was making. After studying the film, he said, his voice awestruck, "Every throw was perfect, exactly where it had to be."

In his old age, Walsh discovered Montana all over again, fell in love all over again.

But Montana took two years to develop. In spite of what you've read, Walsh was not entirely sure what he had in Montana. Walsh needed to understand Montana and craft an offense around him. Montana did not have a quarterback's great arm. He had no bazooka like John Elway. He did not have and never had the bazooka Kaepernick carries with him.

With his athletic gifts — so gaudy — Kaepernick could play in any offense ever created. Montana could not. He never could have played quarterback for Al Davis' Raiders. Don't laugh. Davis wanted a quarterback who could launch the ball, who could throw the deep sideline patterns. Montana never did that. Raiders' receivers would have outrun Montana's arm. They never could outrun Kaepernick's.

Kaepernick is a better athlete than Montana was. He threw 92-mile-per-hour heat as a pitcher in high school. The Cubs drafted him. Montana was a good athlete but never like that. It's reasonable to say Kaepernick and Montana are neck and neck in their third seasons. Maybe Kaepernick is slightly ahead. He got into the Super Bowl his second season. Montana did not.

But Montana won the Super Bowl his third season and was MVP of that Super Bowl. The third year was Montana's coming out. Kaepernick needs to make a huge leap forward.

There are reasons to think he can. He throws the ball faster and harder than Montana or Young. As an athlete he's a phenomenon with his long limbs and his quickness and his change of direction. He already is a better quarterback than he was last season. Part of the improvement involves feel. He has a tremendous idea of defenders around him, feels the issue in the pocket better than most veterans.

And the game is different from when Montana and Young played. It's more wide open, more quarterback-friendly. Teams spread their offenses almost from sideline to sideline — and that spreads the defense. In the day of the West Coast Offense as practiced by Montana and Young, players were closer together, especially in the backfield. Compared to now, it was the difference between playing in a phone booth or the parking lot of a mall.

Kaepernick is a different style quarterback than Montana or Young. Think of him as a point guard, the floor leader. He sees all those options spread out there horizontally and vertically and he has what seems like infinite choices. And he's brilliant at choosing.

He has the arm — that bazooka — to attack a defense the width and length of the field. He strings out a defense. He minimizes the number of defenders in the box. You saw him do that to Green Bay. Because the defense frets about the read-option, commits a defender to the read-option, someone on the offense always is open. Hello, Anquan Boldin.

The defense may have a spy on Kaepernick — needs a spy — but the spy can't compare as an athlete. Kaepernick is a one-man mismatch just by existing.

It is our humble opinion that Kaepernick is advanced well beyond his years in the league. It is our opinion — always has been — that Harbaugh did right in choosing Kaepernick over Alex Smith. It is our opinion Kaepernick is ahead of Young and Montana. But Montana had a legendary third year.

Ball's in your court, Colin.