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49ers QB Kaepernick faces a defining year

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick extends his hands after the Denver Broncos defeated the 49ers in their NFL pre-season footb
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick extends his hands after the Denver Broncos defeated the 49ers in their NFL pre-season footb

By Simon Evans

(Reuters) - After unexpectedly leading the San Francisco 49ers to a Super Bowl appearance with some spectacular performances, quarterback Colin Kaepernick faces the challenge of proving he can deliver the goods for a full NFL season.

A year ago, the strong-armed quarterback was preparing for a second season as the backup in San Francisco but an injury to incumbent starter Alex Smith midway through the campaign offered him a chance to prove himself.

Kaepernick coolly led his team to the Super Bowl where they fell 34-31 to the Baltimore Ravens. The 49ers are a favorite to represent the National Football Conference in this season's Super Bowl and their quarterback will be one of the most scrutinized in the league.

The 49ers and Kaepernick relied heavily on the read-option offense, which features plenty of running from the quarterback, while Robert Griffin III of the Washington Redskins and Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks also made use of the trend that caught on last season.

With speedy Philadelphia Eagles signal caller Michael Vick, under new coach Chip Kelly, also likely to make some use of the approach, the season could in many ways be a referendum on mobile quarterbacks and the system that works best for them.

Critics believe the injuries, such as the one suffered by Griffin in the playoffs, will eventually lead coaches to move away from the 'option' and one of Kaepernick's challenges will be to avoid the big hits that a running quarterback can face.

"As a quarterback you have to know that you have to be healthy to be able to help your team," Kaepernick said at the start of the preseason.

"Running down and taking a big hit from a linebacker or a safety is not going to be in your best interest or the team's. You have to be smart with your body."

But that is about as expansive as Kaepernick gets on the subject of his style or the way he has handled his sudden rise to prominence in the league.

San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh, though, has noticed the way Kaepernick has won the admiration of his teammates in such a short space of time.

"Kap is a diverse guy. And the coaches love him, the players love him. It's unique in that way, maybe, for a quarterback. You don't always see that, but I see that with Kap," said Harbaugh.

"He's universally respected in the locker room and loved by his teammates. I guess I see that from the 25 to 35 demographic too, buying jerseys. People relate to him. They like his company, they like being around him."

He will be a lot more liked if he manages to go one step further this season and get his hands on the NFL's championship Lombardi Trophy.

But with some pundits, like former quarterback and current NFL analyst Ron Jaworski, saying that the 25-year-old Kaepernick he has the capacity to be one of the "greatest ever", the pressure is on.

(Reporting by Simon Evans in Miami; Editing by Frank Pingue)

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