RENTON — One year and 20 days ago, Pete Carroll went against the grain and named rookie Russell Wilson the starting quarterback of a team with legitimate playoff hopes.
Three months and two days after that, Jim Harbaugh made a risky call, announcing that Colin Kaepernick would remain his quarterback even after starter Alex Smith, who had been playing very well before suffering a concussion, was cleared to return.
Two young, dynamic quarterbacks. Two bold decisions by head coaches. One rivalry redefined.
Yes, Carroll and Harbaugh are currently at the center of the Seahawks-49ers love(less)-fest, and yes, they have built complete enough teams that both would probably be playoff contenders if their offenses were currently guided by Smith and Matt Flynn. But no two people will shape what figures to be the NFL’s best rivalry for another decade or so more than Wilson and Kaepernick, two young and talented quarterbacks who have quickly become the leaders of two of the best teams in football.
Carroll and Harbaugh both had teams good enough to win with defense, running games and conservative quarterback play. However, both coaches saw in their young quarterbacks the chance to take their offenses to another level, and both decided that was worth the risk of going with an inexperienced player to lead playoff-caliber teams.
The Seahawks-49ers rivalry undoubtedly would be entertaining for years to come no matter who was playing quarterback. There’s the bad blood between Carroll and Harbaugh; between former Stanford players Richard Sherman and Doug Baldwin and their college coach; between the fans; and between, well, just about everybody.
But what will take the rivalry to another level are the two players who, despite all the animosity between the two teams, are a lot alike. The surface-level differences between Wilson and Kaepernick are easy to spot. As Wilson notes, “he’s a lot taller than me,” and they certainly present different images, but don’t let Wilson’s cliches or Kaepernick’s tattoos mislead you.
Not only are both exceptional athletes who can destroy a defense with cannon arms and their legs, they are leaders who had what it took to win over a locker room with their poise and work ethic despite their youth and inexperience. Both even carry the same chip on their shoulder, having been passed over in the draft for either more polished quarterbacks in the case of Kaepernick, or more vertically gifted, in the case of Wilson.
“They’re both cut from the same cloth,” Harbaugh said. “They’re both extremely smart, they throw the ball extremely well, they’re very mobile and they’re winners. The thing you can say is they’re football players, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick, and that encompasses everything you want in a football player.”
Kaepernick and Wilson didn’t come into the league at the same time, but because Kaepernick didn’t take over the starting job until last season, he will forever be linked to the talented 2012 class of Wilson, Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III. And because they happen to play for heated rivals, Wilson and Kaepernick always will be compared, much like Luck and Griffin are as the top two picks of their draft.
“Obviously, we have a lot of similar abilities in terms of running the ball and throwing the football and everything and making things happen,” Wilson said. “He’s more of a long strider than me. I’m more kind of a quick guy, try to avoid people. I love the way he plays. He’s a great football player.”
As Carroll has noted on more than one occasion, there’s more to this special young crop of young quarterbacks than just talent. They are also the product of a changing mentality in football, one which used to say that freshmen quarterbacks aren’t ready at the college level, and that an NFL coach would be insane to start a rookie. Now, as quarterbacks come up through the youth and high school levels better prepared than ever, going young at the most important position in the game is no longer career suicide for a coach.
“The whole cycle, the whole upbringing of the quarterback position has changed,” Carroll said. “It’s not what it used to be. It’s not like, ‘Wow, these guys are really good now.’ It’s the whole process as they’re coming through their junior high stuff, everybody is throwing a football. By the time you get to your opportunity, these kids are just well beyond where they used to be, and that’s the truth now, we know that. I don’t think an eclipse or something that occurred and all of sudden they can start playing quarterback.”
Yes, Carroll did stop himself, realizing that was an odd use of eclipse, but the point remains, it’s hardly a coincidence that we’re seeing some of the best play from inexperienced quarterbacks in the history of the league. Yet even if youth is the new trend in football, not every young quarterback will have the polish and physical talent of Luck, or the charisma and athleticism of Luck, or the … well, you get the point — lots of adjectives describing exciting quarterbacks.
And that’s why Kaepernick-Wilson will be so damn fun to watch for so many years. They’re not just NFL quarterbacks with the potential to be great, they’re part of a young group of quarterbacks with the potential to reshape the way we view quarterback play in the NFL. They’re erasing the notion that an NFL quarterback can’t run without getting hurt — well, not Griffin — and they’re turning the broken play into one of the most dangerous plays in an offensive repertoire. Most importantly, they’re showing that a player in his early 20s can command a locker room.
“He gives everyone else confidence,” Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said of Wilson. “I can liken it back to when we brought Brett Favre in with (Minnesota). We had other quarterbacks going on, and when we brought him in, you kind of had a little bit of a belief, and then there was the first game that he goes out there and he wins the game at the end of the game on a touchdown pass, and everyone is full-board in and they are able to say, ‘OK this is our guy,’ because he oozes that and believes in that.
“Russell’s kind of the same way in that he oozes that and he believes it, and once you start making those plays, everyone around you is all in and they believe that he has the ability to lead us to where we want to go.”
And why not make lofty comparisons? Wilson may have a bit of Favre in him — though let’s hope he doesn’t someday torture us all with years of retirement drama — and he and Kaepernick could be the next generation version of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, rivals whose teams seem to meet every year in the playoffs. Luck and RGIII have every chance to be as good or better, but the divisional proximity and the numerous similarities will make Kaepernick and Wilson a must-see event this Sunday and for many, many more to come.
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.