It conjures up so many things. Anxious anticipation. Childish excitement. Dangerous levels of sloth and gluttony. All these things are perfectly normal. But as Phil Dawson lined up the kick that would start the Niners' latest campaign, I was overcome by a strange emotion, one that I actually put into words. Loud, pissed-off words.
"Five more [bleep]ing yards!"
This might surprise you—given my usually relentless optimism—but throughout this offseason I was incorrigibly gloomy. Don't get me wrong; I wouldn't trade this era of contention for anything close to the preceding derpitude. But my word, it's still been tough. I never thought that a season could end more painfully than 2011 did. Yet 2012 ended 50 times worse.
No matter how loyal you are as a fan—and trust me, I'm as loyal as you—you're within your rights if you ask yourself: how many times can I keep getting up?
Naturally, though, the question's absurd, presuming a choice that doesn't exist. Your rational mind might beg you to stop this peculiar breed of masochism. But something more primal—your reptilian brain—knows there isn't any escape.
Come opening day, you'll be there. So, of course, there I was.
But something still just didn't feel right. Maybe it was the gaping hole at wide receiver. Maybe it was the questions in the secondary. Maybe it was the scary opponent, out for revenge and thirsty for blood.
But whatever it was, the Football Fates were screaming again. We gave you a chance, which you fumbled away. We gave you another, which you couldn't control. Do you really think that we'll give you a third?
That's what I heard, as Dawson kicked off.
Like I said, gloomy, right?
But there's something about Jim Harbaugh's team. Something they projected immediately. It's not exactly a conceit, though it's not exactly anything else. Though they've been through what we've been through—but worse, of course, since these are their lives—they don't project a shred of defeat. They know they haven't won anything yet, but they act like they know it's a matter of time. They can't be sure, yet they seem sure. And they don't seem cocky; they just seem right.
In a setting so often compared to war, the Niners somehow projected peace. And thankfully, I felt it too.
Of course, though, for the peace to last, they'd need to go and win this game. And with two particularly peace-inducing performances, they won it.
Colin Kaepernick's offseason was strange. Joe Flacco might've gotten the trip to Disney World, but Kaepernick was everywhere else. At the ESPYs, collecting the trophy for best breakthrough. In ESPN's "body issue," leaving very little to the imagination. Even on the cover of G-friggin'-Q. And everyone, from little old ladies to week-old infants, seemed to wearing his red #7.
Though clearly not your typical "golden boy," like Tom Brady or either of the Mannings, Kaepernick—with only 10 NFL starts—attained a surprising cultural status. A kind of revolution had taken place. Despite some teeth-gnashing from the older guard, America's most popular sport was now in the hands of a young, brash, tatted-up bunch, and Kaepernick was their unquestioned leader.
But these days, more than ever, celebrity comes with a price. The hype-machine is quick to reward, but it's quicker to punish, ready to pounce on any mistake. And Kaepernick knows this, having already made his first mistake, and having already been duly punished. No, no; he didn't join the NFL's annual offseason DUI parade, since, of course, he doesn't drink. Instead, he made a questionable choice of headgear for an unofficial trip to the beach.
The point is, if you're given the spotlight, you're gonna be watched. And you're gonna have to prove you deserve it, or you, my friend, are going to pay.
On Sunday, Kaepernick had much to prove. The machine was ready, eager to deem him a flash in the pan. In January, he'd destroyed the Packers primarily with his legs, but that was a plan that would work only once. The Packers had literally gone back to school, studying up on defending the option. And Clay Matthews—the NFL's closest thing to a professional wrestler—warned Kaepernick that any attempt to leave the pocket would be dealt-with severely. Add that gaping hole at wide receiver, and the machine was virtually salivating.
Yet the machine—and clearly the Packers—simply hadn't been paying attention. Though that playoff game was his magnum opus, he'd already shown that he isn't really a "running QB." A "running QB," conventionally defined, is one who lacks the strength or the guts to win primarily with his arm. Kaepernick had already shown: whatever he lacks, it certainly isn't strength or guts. Force him to stay in the pocket, and he's perfectly happy to destroy you that way.
Of course, he does need someone to catch.
Enter Anquan Boldin.
I can't quite explain this. No one doubted Boldin's credentials as a legitimate #2 receiver. No one doubted that we'd fleeced the Ravens, having exploited the Harbaugh Family Discount. But Boldin couldn't be more than that. Sure, on Super Bowl Sunday, he'd been the crucial difference. But he hadn't been a thousand-yard man since 2009, and he'll be 33 years old in October. We didn't have a #1, or even really a #3. Basically alone, what could Boldin possibly do?
Well, he said, I'll be them all.
Covered or not, he always was open. Kaepernick made throw after throw, and Boldin answered with catch after catch. Aside from Kaepernick's continuing play-clock issues, and aside from Boldin's utterly stomach-dropping near-injury, they were simply unstoppable. Kaepernick put up our first 400 since 1 B.A., and Boldin put up our first 200 since a young, pre-meltdown Terrell Owens.
Make no mistake. The Niners will lose a game this year due to their lack of receiving depth. But if Boldin can be a clear #1—and with Vernon Davis serving as essentially our #2—maybe it won't be a playoff game.
In the end, the Niners did much more than prove their continued ownership of the Packers. They also did what I'd thought was impossible. I shouldn't have been surprised, of course. After all, Kaepernick had said it himself. Months ago, when describing how he deals with adversity, even of the most harrowing kind, he'd laid it out, a perfect edict, not only for sports but for life itself.
"You have to move forward."
In the wake of the most crushing defeat in franchise history, Kaepernick did. He moved forward, spectacularly. And impossibly, he brought me with him.
Kaepernick Emboldens the Heaviest Heart
By Jeff Kaplan
By: LulucalienteDate: Friday, September 13, 2013 at 7:00 PMComment: If there is such a thing as sports poetry, this column is it.
By: Dallas Niner FanDate: Wednesday, September 11, 2013 at 12:50 PMComment: Great article Jeff. I have a question: any idea why the Niners resigned Osgood instead of Hawkins? Hawkins had a much better pre-season. Any insights on this?
By: DaninersDate: Wednesday, September 11, 2013 at 7:04 AMComment: One thing you forgot to mention: the Niners have players who can only improve and help them come playoffs. Patton is one example, McDonald another, Reid, Lemonier, Hunter, James, Manningham, Crabtree. The point is, this team is scary now, terrifying later. I don't see where the Packers or Seahawks have that same upside. Other than Lacy, how do the Packers improve themselves? Same with the Seahawks. Where are their future impact players? Christie? Good luck getting Lynch off the field. Gore is old...Hunter getting reps is a given. The Niners' depth and talent make them potentially unstoppable toward the end of the season. Again, this assumes health and that these young players continue to improve, but no one else has the upside going into week 12 and beyond.
By: Gary MialocqDate: Wednesday, September 11, 2013 at 5:16 AMComment: Glad to see you made it through. This is my 68th season as a Niner fan and to say we've have ups and downs over the years is obviously an understatement. It was a 35 year wait for a Super Bowl win, but not for great teams and great players. We introduced the T-formation to pro football with Coach Buck Shaw and QB Frankie Albert, the Shotgun with Coach Red Hickey, and the West Coast Offense under Bill Walsh. We had legendary players (14 in the HOF so far) like the Million Dollar Backfield (Tittle, McElhenny, Perry, and JH Johnson) and true beasts like Nomellini and St. Clair and have had 40 winning seasons. The 49ers always come back and this may be one of our greatest seasons, led by a kid who may become our greatest QB of all-time. So glad I'm not a Seahawk fan (0 rings, 2 HOF players, only 16 winning seasons). Lead the league in noise and delusional fans. Go Niners.
By: PierceDate: Tuesday, September 10, 2013 at 10:04 PMComment: GREAT article. Boldin is an absolute beast. Curious to see if he is able to put up points consistently. In baltimore (regular season) he was average. However, i think Kap makes his receivers better. Do you think Patton will contribute this season?
By: JesseDate: Tuesday, September 10, 2013 at 9:49 PMComment: Excellent read start to finish.
By: dd25Date: Tuesday, September 10, 2013 at 9:38 PMComment: Kaepernick doesn't drink?
By: Rick ReuleckeDate: Tuesday, September 10, 2013 at 9:36 PMComment: Perfect!