Should the San Francisco 49ers Fear for Colin Kaepernick's Safety in 2013?

Tyson LanglandNFC West Lead WriterSeptember 5, 2013

Dec 16, 2012; Foxboro, Massachusetts, USA; San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) gets sacked by New England Patriots defensive end Rob Ninkovich (50) during the fourth quarter at Gillette Stadium. The San Francisco 49ers won 41-34.  Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports
Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Storylines are already starting to take shape as teams ready for their starts to the 2013 NFL regular season. Rookie quarterbacks Geno Smith and EJ Manuel will both be making their first pro starts, and the Denver Broncos host the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens.

However, the biggest storyline over the past few days has involved the Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

Ever since Kaepernick dismantled the Pack in the playoffs last year, head coach Mike McCarthy and defensive coordinator Dom Capers have been looking forward to this matchup.

Aside from spending the entire offseason game-planning for Kaepernick and San Francisco’s offense, Green Bay’s defense has been motivated by some questionable scare tactics. Here’s what All-Pro linebacker Clay Matthews told ESPN Radio’s Mike & Mike on Tuesday:

One of the things that the referees have told us is that when these quarterbacks carry out the fakes, they lose their right as a quarterback, a pocket-passing quarterback, the protection of a quarterback. So with that, you do have to take your shots on the quarterback.

It sure sounds like Matthews and the Packers defense will be targeting the 25-year-old signal-caller on Sunday.

The comments didn’t seem to faze Kaepernick, though. Per Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle, he brushed them off, saying he’s not worried about getting hit. Because that's football—you’re going to get hit. He has a point; there’s only so much he can control. The rest is in the hands of head coach Jim Harbaugh and the officiating crew.

It will be up to Harbaugh to monitor the game as it progresses. Sure, offensive coordinator Greg Roman calls the plays, but the third-year head coach has the final say and power to keep Kaepernick out of harm's way. Harbaugh did his due diligence on the matter Wednesday. He asked the NFL to clarify the new quarterback hit rules. 

Per Eric Branch, even though Harbaugh hasn’t received an official response from the league office, the new rules are pretty straightforward.

As umpire Garth DeFelice explained when he visited Santa Clara, quarterbacks can be hit when they hand off to a runner and carry out a read-option fake. That is, when there is still a question of whether a quarterback still possesses the ball.

Their only protection in such circumstances is normal unnecessary roughness rules. It’s only when a quarterback drops back and sets up as a passer that he is afforded the added protections given to signal-callers.

If it were up to Harbaugh, the rule would protect the quarterback until he’s outside the pocket and declared himself a runner.

My opinion is before the quarterback’s declared being a runner, then he should be afforded the protection that all quarterbacks are afforded until he declares and gets out of the pocket and starts running with the ball. Or running an option, or carrying out a bootleg and attempting to run or pass when he’s outside of the pocket. But when he’s in the pocket, I believe that he’s a quarterback until he declares that he’s a runner. 

One can’t blame Harbaugh for seeking clarity and voicing his opinion. He’s only looking out for his team, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Nevertheless, he also needs to realize that he can’t have the best of both worlds. 

Having a running quarterback and encouraging him to run generally means he will be put in harm's way. The only way to safeguard against this would be to completely scrap any read-option play. Will the 49ers ever go to that extreme? It's doubtful.

With that said, there’s no question San Francisco’s offense would still be successful even if it didn’t run the read-option. Colin Kaepernick isn’t a one-trick pony; he can throw the deep ball, execute a well-designed play-action pass, and attack a defense over the middle of the field.

There’s a reason the analysts at Pro Football Focus (subscription required) graded him as the NFL’s 10th-best quarterback. First and foremost, he’s a passer. His running ability is a wrinkle that helped fuel and sustain drives when needed in 2012. 

Like the Packers, teams will be gunning for Kaepernick all season long. However, the 49ers shouldn’t be seriously concerned about the safety of their star quarterback. The officials will do their part and tightly officiate the game. And Coach Harbaugh will undoubtedly do his best to protect Kap when he’s on the field.

Moreover, there’s a reason Kaepernick spent the entire offseason in the weight room. Getting hit is not ideal, but that's a part of the gig when you’re a running quarterback.

When it’s all said and done, Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers will be just fine.