Will Kaepernick avoid 'young' mistakes?
Vince Ferragamo, Colin Kaepernick and Jim Plunkett are three of 10 quarterbacks who have taken their team to the Super Bowl without having started the season. (USA TODAY IMAGES)
It is a semi-exclusive fraternity, but one whose ranks have nearly doubled since the turn of the century.
They are the 10 (um, X?) NFL quarterbacks who began a season riding the bench, only to ride to the rescue and take his team to the Super Bowl. From Craig Morton to Terry Bradshaw, from Vince Ferragamo to Jim Plunkett, from Doug Williams to Jeff Hostetler, from Trent Dilfer to Tom Brady to Jake Delhomme to…Colin Kaepernick (see accompanying chart).
Yes, the 49ers' second-year signal caller was just inducted, so to speak, and couldn't you just hear him saying, through clenched teeth, "Thank you sir, may I have another?"
The Delta Tau Chi's have nothing on this relatively tame animal house of QBs, though all but three of them have had toga party-esque parades at the end of their runs. And if the 49ers beat the Baltimore Ravens Sunday in Super Bowl XLVII, Kaepernick may as well serve as grand marshall down Market Street.
Because while injury to the established starter has played the foremost role in founding said frat, Kaepernick's ascension, you might say, was pre-ordained in that the 49ers actually drafted him to be their quarterback of the future. So when Alex Smith took a blow to the back of the helmet from St. Louis linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar on Nov. 11 and later came out with a concussion, only to get Wally Pipped by Kaepernick, it only seemed the natural order of things.
Harsh? Unfair? Maybe, but in a game where the backup quarterback is not only one play away from running the show but oftentimes the most popular player on the team, don't even try explaining that to the likes of Joe Gilliam, Pat Haden, Dan Pastorini or Drew Bledsoe. Or, in time, Smith himself.
Because really, one player's misfortune can turn out to be another's good fortune. And playing on Super Bowl Sunday and grasping a Lombardi Trophy might be at the end of that road.
For our purposes here in the Bay, let's go back to the dying days of disco…and the Carter Administration…and borrow from the campuses of Cal and Stanford.
In consecutive seasons -- 1979 and 1980 -- the Los Angeles Rams and Oakland Raiders endured similar, if different, fates.
Haden was the Rams' established Los Angeles idol, the fair-haired golden child with the USC pedigree under center. Until his passing pinky finger got caught in an artificial turf seam at the Seattle Kingdome in Week 10 of that '79 season and the digit was broken. Ferragamo was rehabbing his own broken hand, injured three weeks earlier in a blowout loss at Dallas, so a rookie, Jeff Rutledge, started the next game.
But after the Rams lost at Chicago, a sufficiently-healed Ferragamo took over, against Atlanta, and on national television.
"In front of Howard Cosell and Monday Night Football," Ferragamo, whose college career began in Berkeley, told CSNBayArea.com.
"I was just thinking, now is the time to go in and show what you've got. I had the good fortune to have already been there for two years, so it was a matter of just preparing for something like that. Problem is, you don't know when it's going to come up."
Ferragamo, who now works in real estate in Anaheim, went into escrow with the Rams, in a manner of speaking, and took full advantage.
"The whole team," he said, "took on a whole different complexion."
He equated it to what the 49ers experienced with Kaepernick replacing Smith.
"He has a certain charisma," Ferragamo said of Kaepernick, though he might have been referring to himself. "Definitely you could see the flavor of the team change. Relaxed, having more fun."
The Rams did the same some 33 years earlier, winning six of their next seven, including playoff games at Dallas (sending Roger Staubach into retirement) and Tampa Bay before facing defending champion Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XIV. The Rams led the Steelers, 19-17, entering the fourth quarter but the Cinderella story was not to be as the Steelers closed out a 31-19 victory at the Rose Bowl.
Cinderella, though, showed up the next year in Oakland in the form of Plunkett and his Lazarus act.
A Heisman Trophy winner at Stanford and former No. 1 overall draft pick, so frustrated was Plunkett with the lack of an opportunity to compete for the starting gig in 1980 he asked coach Tom Flores to orchestrate a trade.
Plunkett had already washed out in both New England and San Francisco and after backing up Ken Stabler the previous year, the Raiders had acquired Pastorini from the Houston Oilers in a starter-for-starter swap. Al Davis ignored Plunkett's trade wish so Plunkett would have to wait. And wait some more.
"Tom told me I was needed," Plunkett said and, actually, Flores said Plunkett outplayed Pastorini in training camp.
The Kansas City Chiefs obliged, breaking Pastorini's right leg in the fifth game of the season, and as the Oakland Coliseum crowd cheered derisively -- Pastorini was far from a fan favorite, having replaced Stabler -- Plunkett jogged onto the field.
"If I was not able to take advantage of the opportunity, I might not start another game, let alone play," Plunkett said.
"There was a lot of pressure I put on myself. I had to perform. I had to perform or I was out of the NFL."
There was no looking back. With Plunkett starting, the Raiders won 13 of their last 15 games, including the 27-10 Super Bowl XV beatdown of the Philadelphia Eagles in which Plunkett was named MVP. He was also the NFL's comeback player of the year.
"It worked out well," he said, matter-of-factly. And then some.
Because Plunkett would experience deja vu three years later when, with the Raiders now calling Los Angeles home, he was benched in favor of Marc Wilson despite the Raiders sitting at 5-2.
But the Chiefs would again get Plunkett back under center, Kansas City this time breaking Wilson's left shoulder in his third start. A refreshed Plunkett led the Raiders to an 8-1 finish, which included the 38-9 pounding of Washington in Super Bowl XVIII, the Raiders' third and most recent championship.
The 49ers are going for their sixth Super Bowl championship, which would tie them with the Steelers for most in NFL history.
So forgive Ferragamo, who played with the rival Rams when they called the Southland home, and Plunkett, who is still employed by the Raiders across the Bay, if they're not exactly flying 49ers colors this weekend.
"Not particularly," Plunkett said with a laugh. "But I'm a hometown guy. I root for the Giants and the Sharks and the A's and the Warriors, you name it.
"But hey, this is a great story with the Harbaugh brothers. It's a one-in-a-million story. It's exciting. It's cool. We may never see it again."
And still, Plunkett, a former 49er himself who was 11-15 with them and 2-2 against them, could not say the words. Can you blame him?
Ferragamo, a veteran of so many Rams-49ers battles who went 6-2 against San Francisco with a 96.4 passer rating, compared to his career QB rating of 70.1, also laughed when asked his feelings of his old rivals vying for another Super Bowl title.
"My wife is a Ray Lewis fan," Ferragamo said. "I like what John (Harbaugh) has done there in Baltimore. They play tough. I like (Joe) Flacco a lot. I do like the Ravens. But, I'm an NFC guy."
And a Ram. Still. So much so, Ferragamo was in St. Louis this season when the Rams beat the 49ers.
The two old QBs, though, are still football fans and, remember, pledged the same From-Bencha-To-Super-Sunday-Starting-Quarterbacka fraternity as Kaepernick.
"I see what Jim Harbaugh sees in him -- a lot of greatness there," said Ferragamo, who had his own serendipitous moment in 2008 as he was at Gillette Stadium taking in a New England game when Tom Brady's left knee was rolled up on by Kansas City's Bernard Pollard, ending the Patriots quarterback's season and opening the door for Matt Cassel.
"It's pretty thrilling. He has all the tools. I like the way he can drop back and and stand tall in the pocket and throw the ball downfield. He has a lot of accuracy. Usually you don't see running quarterbacks with those skills."
Of the 10 members of the aforementioned QB fraternity, only Ferragamo (Game 12), Williams (Game 15) and Hostetler (Game 15) took over for good later in a season than did Kaepernick (Game 10).
"The game is different now than when Jim and I played," Ferragamo added. "Quarterbacks, we were getting hit in the head all the time. Concussions, they weren't even diagnosed a lot of times. Receivers could be hit eight yards down field.
"The rules to protect quarterbacks now are a good thing, and the rules changes, it wasn't as wide open as it is today."
All of which plays to the skill set of a big-armed-yet-mobile slinger like Kaepernick.
"There's tremendous upside with him," Plunkett said. "He shocked the whole world with his performance against Green Bay. He was a one-man fricken operation out there. He did everything, and he did everything well. I don't care if you're Tom Brady or Johnny Unitas, it was impressive.
"But you can't say it was a once-in-a-lifetime deal, because he might do it again."
Which would mean adding new chapter to the fraternity, right?
|Year||QB||Team||Game Took Over||Opening Day Starter||W-L Super Bowl|
|1970||Craig Morton||Cowboys||4||Roger Staubach||L SBV to Colts, 16-13|
|1974||Terry Bradshaw||Steelers||7||Joe Gilliam||W SB IX vs. Vikings, 16-6|
|1979||Vince Ferragamo||Rams||12||Pat Haden||L SB XIV to Steelers, 31-19|
|1980||Jim Plunkett||Raiders||6||Dan Pastroini||W SB XV vs. Eagles, 27-10|
|1987||Doug Williams||Washington||15||Jay Schroeder||W SB XXII vs. Broncos, 42-10|
|1990||Jeff Hostetler||Giants||15||Phil Simms||W SB XXV vs. Bills, 20-19|
|2000||Trent Dilfer||Ravens||9||Tony Banks||W SB XXXV vs. Giants, 34-7|
|2001||Tom Brady||Patriots||3||Drew Bledsoe||W SB XXXVI vs. Rams, 20-17|
|2003||Jake Delhomme||Panthers||2||Rodney Peete||L SB XXXVIII to Patriots, 32-29|
|2012||Colin Kaepernick||49ers||10||Alex Smith||?|