NEW ORLEANS — Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, if you believe what his father says, is dull. San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, based on every interview he does, appears painfully shy.
But it really doesn’t matter how they project themselves off the field, Flacco and Kaepernick, in their own ways, they are re-defining the art of quarterback in the National Football League. And when they meet Sunday night in Super Bowl XLVII at the Superdome, the winner will likely become the new face of pro football.
This is the first Super Bowl in 10 years where neither quarterback is named Brady, Manning or Roethlisberger.
Both Flacco and Kaepernick believe they’re ready to carry the torch.
“We’ve played in some big games, but nothing quite like this,” said the tall, clean-cut Flacco, whose contract expires at the end of the season, making him an unrestricted free agent. “I think I’m the kind of person who will handle it pretty well, but you never know until you’re put in that situation.”
Kaepernick wears his feelings on his multiple tattoos. He referred to the prominent tattoo scrolling on his right shoulder from Psalm 18:39 as his inspiration.
“The verse says, ‘You arm me with strength for battle,’” Kaepernick said. “Basically, it’s saying, the Lord has given me all the tools to be successful, I just have to go out there and do my part to uphold that.”
Kaepernick, 25, is the latest phenomenon in a class of young quarterbacks who took the NFL by storm this year, including rookies Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson.
A second-year player thrust in the starting lineup midway through this season, Kaepernick has made just nine NFL starts — the third fewest ever in a season by a quarterback starting a Super Bowl. He throws a heater along the lines of a John Elway, and is a dynamic runner like Griffin III and Wilson, who create dilemmas for defenses with their read-option games.
In the 49ers’ two postseason wins over Green Bay and Atlanta, Kaepernick completed 63.5 percent of his passes with three touchdowns and one interception for a 105.9 passer rating, plus he ran for 202 yards, including a 56-yard touchdown. No NFL quarterback has ever posted a 100-plus passer rating and rushed for at least 200 yards in a single postseason.
“Kap is the next generation quarterback we’re all looking for,” said veteran 49ers wide receiver Randy Moss.
Though Flacco, 28, is the first starting quarterback in the Super Bowl era to take his team to the playoffs and win at least one playoff game in each of his first five seasons, every postseason ended in disappointment with critics saying he was not in the elite class at his position.
That began to change in the last two weeks, when the Ravens opened the deep passing game reminiscent of another Baltimore quarterback — Johnny Unitas. Flacco’s deep touchdown strikes of 59, 32 and 70 yards conquered Peyton Manning in a double-overtime playoff win at Denver; then Flacco outdueled Brady in the AFC championship game.
“I’ve told everyone, when it comes to physical attributes as a quarterback, he’s the best I’ve been with,” said Ravens wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who went to a Super Bowl with Kurt Warner as an Arizona Cardinal four years ago. “The guy can make every throw on the field, no matter if it’s a quick-gain pass, intermediate or a deep ball down the field. He has every throw in his arsenal.”
Certainly the rules of the game, designed to favor the offense, coupled with high schools and colleges throwing the ball more as never before, mean these new age quarterbacks don’t need much of an apprenticeship.
Flacco, a traditional dropback passer, has started all 80 regular season and 12 playoff games since he was taken in the first round of the 2008 NFL Draft from Delaware, a Division I-AA program. Kaepernick, a second-round pick in 2011 from Nevada, a non-BCS school, is 7-2 as a starter.
“We’re seeing two things with all the quarterbacks now,” said former Super Bowl MVP quarterback Phil Simms, who will broadcast the game for CBS. “To say they’re more prepared is a tremendous understatement. But the other thing is all these quarterbacks who are coming into the league now, what they have in common is they can really throw it.
“It is about big throws, dynamic throws down the field. You see it in every game. It’s almost as good as anything I’ve seen in the NFL … There are no limitations what the offensive coaches can design for these quarterbacks.”
And the days of pinning championship hopes on running the football and playing great defense are over.
“Now, the only thing that matters is: get a great quarterback,” said former Super Bowl winning coach Jimmie Johnson, an analyst for Fox. “If you have a great quarterback regardless of the rest of the football team, you’ve got a shot.”
When 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, a former NFL quarterback, made the trip to the University of Nevada to scout and interview Kaepernick before the 2011 draft, he challenged the kid to a passing contest.
“We had a few competitions, different drills and different accuracy things,” Kaepernick said. “Just see who could compete and win. We had different goal-post throws, who could throw a better spiral, things like that.
“I let him win the first one, and I won the rest.”
The ultra-competitive Harbaugh saw a little of himself in the multi-talented Kaepernick’s passing and running ability.
“When Colin is running, and the stride that he has, the gracefulness with his stride, the ground that he covers, how quick and fast he runs, reminds me of myself,” Harbaugh said, before delivering the punch line. “Then I wake up. But when I dream and have visions of how I personally run, it’s the way Colin runs.”
Harbaugh made the visionary decision to bench Alex Smith — who had led the 49ers to the NFC championship game last year and was among the NFL’s top-ranked passers at the time of a mid-season concussion — and go with the dynamic Kaepernick at midseason, even after Smith was ready to play.
The 49ers installed a Pistol offense, in which Kaepernick takes the snap closer to center and gives him the option to run, hand the ball off or pass.
In last five games of the regular season, Kaepernick threw 21 passes of 25 yards or more, which ranked second in the league in that span; averaged 8.38 yards per attempt, which ranked third; threw just three interceptions and had a passer rating of 99.9.
“I think he’s everything you kind of want wrapped up in one,” said former Super Bowl winning quarterback Trent Dilfer, now an analyst for ESPN. “He’s big. He’s athletic. He can throw. And at the same time he’s a little different. He doesn’t necessarily look the part. And I think that’s kind of cool and cutting edge. And he’s performing. I think at the end of the day you get famous in the NFL when you light it up. And he lit it up on a huge stage.”
Surely, in time, NFL defenses will come up with answers for someone like Kaepernick, though the 49ers have had just two weeks.
“NFL purists are going to continue to say, well, defenses will figure it out, and that’s not true,” Dilfer said. “They’ve never had to deal with the Colin Kaepernick, the RG III, the next generation of quarterbacks coming up who are pass-first guys but also have this physicality and this expertise in the quarterback run-driven game.”
Joe Flacco’s regular-season statistics, like his personality, are not glittering. He’s just the NFL’s 12th ranked passer with an 87.7 rating; his completion percentage of 59.7 percent is 19th; But he did throw for a career-most 3,817 yards; his 22 touchdown passes were the second-most of his career; and his 10 interceptions tied a career low.
And he’s turned it up in the playoffs. Flacco has completed 51 of 93 passes for 853 yards, eight touchdowns and no interceptions for a 114.7 passer rating in three postseason games. He’s completed eight passes of 25 or more yards, and he’s averaging 16.7 yards per completion by going deep to Boldin, Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones.
“Joe Flacco plays in a system that I call … not quarterback-friendly, it’s not about hitting a tremendously high percentage of your passes,” Simms said, “because look where he throws it. Watch the Denver game. What team throws the ball down the field like that? He doesn’t get a lot of screens, not a lot of quick throws … not a lot of gadgets, and that’s going to drive his percentage down.
“When I judge quarterbacks, I don’t know their numbers, I let my eyes tell me what I think about them. They ask him to make tough throws.”
That’s why Flacco will be scrutinized win or lose.
“For some reason, he can’t be accepted,” Simms said. “Maybe he has to take a class on how to interview better and be more charismatic. But if they lose … he will take if not all, most of the blame for the Baltimore Ravens. If they win, they’ll win despite Joe Flacco.
“Players get labeled. Few times I do a Ravens game where he doesn’t throw the ball well, and I say, wow, that was different. When Joe Flacco makes an outstanding throw, to most fans and most people, it’s another throw. They don’t realize it’s a throw maybe only five guys in the league can make. He has to win the Super Bowl and play well before he gets the accolades he deserves.”