New Year’s Day 2022 marked an unwanted milestone for a quarterback who was so gifted at the peak of his powers, his name remains unmoved atop league records.

It was five years since Colin Kaepernick took his last snap in the NFL.

His final play was a 9-yard touchdown pass to tight end Garrett Celek, finishing a four-play, 35-yard drive in a 25-23 loss to the Seattle Seahawks.

The San Francisco 49ers, led by Chip Kelly, finished the season 2-14. Kelly was fired and Kyle Shanahan was introduced as the team’s new head coach five weeks later.

Little would Kaepernick know that half a decade after he threw that touchdown, he’d remain unwanted by all 32 NFL teams.

The quarterback who was setting the league alight just a few years prior would become an outcast during what should have been the prime of his career.

Jan. 12, 2013

It was the day Kaepernick made history.

The league was well aware of his talents by this point. The 49ers were 5-2 in the seven games Kaepernick started in the second half of the 2012 season.

He’d stepped in for the concussed Alex Smith and impressed so much with his arm and legs that he took the former first overall pick’s job from under him.

But this NFC divisional round game against the Green Bay Packers and reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers was the moment Kaepernick announced himself on the world stage.

The second-year pro had led the 49ers to the second seed in the playoffs and a first-round bye.

Bouncing Back

Under the lights at Candlestick Park, Kaepernick took to the field for his first playoff game. And the game couldn’t have started any worse for him, throwing a Pick 6 on the opening drive.

His short pass down the left side was intended for tight end Vernon Davis, but Packers cornerback Sam Shields intercepted the ball and took it for 52 yards and a touchdown.

Speaking after the game, San Francisco head coach Jim Harbaugh said: “He does a great job of responding. He has done that any time there has been an interception he has thrown, a safety or a turnover, he’s responded with a scoring drive. That’s rare. I think that’s a rare quality. So far he’s shown that he’s got that ability to come back.”

box score

And that’s what happened next. The Niners immediately got the ball back and Kaepernick led an 80-yard touchdown drive. He converted two third downs on the possession, the second of which was a 45-yard pass to Frank Gore that took his team Green Bay’s 22-yard line.

Three plays later, Kaepernick was in the end zone with a 20-yard run up the left that served as retribution for the quarterback who gave up six points a few moments earlier. The Packers should’ve heard the alarm bells because that run was just the beginning.

Their edge defenders had no answer to what he and San Francisco offensive coordinator Greg Roman threw at them. Kaepernick was so dominant carrying the ball and such a magician running the offense that Gore helped himself to 119 rushing yards as Green Bay failed to work out who had it.

Most Rushing Yards by a QB/RB Duo in a Playoff Game

SeasonGameTeamOppQBRBTotal Yards
2012Divisional Playoff49ersPackersColin Kaepernick (181)Frank Gore (119)300
2004Divisional PlayoffFalconsRamsMike Vick (119)Warrick Dunn (142)261
2000Wild Card PlayoffDolphinsColtsJay Fiedler (43)Lamar Smith (209)252
1985Divisional PlayoffRamsCowboysDieter Brock (0)Eric Dickerson (248)248
1963Conf. ChampionshipChargersPatriotsTobin Rote (15)Keith Lincoln (206)221

The Packers went ahead 14-7 towards the end of the first quarter when Rodgers led a seven-play, 80-yard drive that ended with running back DuJuan Harris finding the end zone from an 18-yard run up the middle.

Although the game would be tied on occasion during the second and third quarters, Green Bay would never take the lead again. On the ensuing drive, Kaepernick, aided by a muffed punt by returner Jeremy Ross, found wide receiver Michael Crabtree on a 12-yard TD strike.   

GB-SF passing stats

The half ended with a field goal for San Francisco, as Kaepernick rushed four times for 49 yards on the 11-play drive. Kaepernick was leading the game in rushing with 90 yards and had 193 yards passing to Rodgers’s 96. The scene wasn’t too big for the young QB.

The second half was much the same, with Kaepernick rushing for 91 more yards, including a 56-yard touchdown run in the third quarter on an option play.

It was the NFL’s longest rushing touchdown by a quarterback in the playoffs. It was also a franchise record for the longest run by a quarterback, which Kaepernick broke in 2014 with a 90-yard touchdown run against the San Diego Chargers.

longest rushing TD by a qb

No quarterback in NFL history has rushed for more yards, regular and postseason, than Kaepernick’s 181 against the Packers. And the 56-yard touchdown run broke Michael Vick’s mark of 119 yards.

He joined Jay Cutler of the Chicago Bears and Otto Graham of the Cleveland Browns as the only players to throw for two touchdown passes and run for two scores in a playoff game.

Carolina Panthers star Cam Newton would become the fourth quarterback to do so in the NFC championship game against the Arizona Cardinals in 2016.

most rushing yards in a playoff game by a QBmost rushing yards in a playoff game by a QB

The 49ers set a new franchise record for total yards in a playoff game at 579 after Kaepernick recovered from his early setback to lead the 49ers to Super Bowl XLVII.

“I Didn’t Know How Fast He Was”

The Packers were stunned by what Kaepernick had unleased on the gridiron.

Speaking after the game, former NFL Defensive Player of the Year Charles Woodson said: “I didn’t know how fast he was! Coming in, I never really paid attention to it. But he is fast.”

The game was televised on Fox, with Joe Buck and Troy Aikman the commentary team. The latter, a three-time Super Bowl winner and Hall of Fame quarterback, was left speechless by what he was witnessing.

“If you’re just joining us, the day for Colin Kaepernick, on his second throw of the game went for an interception returned for a touchdown by Sam Shields,” announced Buck after Kaepernick’s 56-yard touchdown run. “Since that moment, Colin Kaepernick has settled in and it’s got my broadcast partner, Troy Aikman, shaking his head. [On] his first playoff start, outside of that early hiccup, it could not be going any better for Kaepernick.”

GB-SF rushing stats

The playoffs are the occasions when the star players step out and lead their teams to victory. Kaepernick seized the moment and had become a big-time player in the NFL.

The Niners went on the road to face the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC championship game. Kaepernick rushed for just 21 yards and the 49ers were down 17-0 just seconds into the second quarter.

He immediately led them on an 11-play, 85-yard touchdown drive. After trailing 24-14 at halftime, San Francisco scored in each of next two quarters to reach its first Super Bowl since 1995.

GB-SF receiving stats

How good was Kaepernick at his peak? Using our EVE model, we’ve created a quarterback spread value to measure Kaepernick’s performance relative to the average NFL starting quarterback.

On total plays in which a pass was expected in 2012, he finished with a 5.88 spread value – second only to Drew Brees and almost six points better than the average starter. To help further put this in perspective, Rodgers led the NFL with a 5.30 spread value during his MVP-caliber 2021 regular season.

Where Did It All Go Wrong?

There was seemingly no stage that was too big for Kaepernick, so what happened?

After a 12-4 season and a heartbreaking loss to the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC championship game the following season, the 49ers imploded. There were lengthy injuries to Patrick Willis and NaVarro Bowman, a nine-game suspension for Aldon Smith, and their quarterback regressed.  

Kaepernick had the most passing yards of his career (3,369) along with his highest completion percentage over a 16-game season (60.5) in 2014, but offensive coordinator Greg Roman admitted that they were trying to simplify the offense for him, who, by then, was a four-year veteran.

His 19 passing touchdowns were marginally lower from the previous season (21), and he rushed for a career-high 639 yards, with his only rushing touchdown coming off a 90-yard run in the Week 16 overtime loss to the San Diego Chargers.

But only rookie quarterback Blake Bortles was sacked more (55) than Kaepernick (52) and San Francisco finished 8-8, missed the postseason and lost Harbaugh to the college ranks.

In the following season, new head coach Jim Tomsula announced that he was making Blaine Gabbert his starting quarterback with the Niners at 2-6 at the halfway point. San Francisco went 5-11 and fired Tomsula as head coach, replacing him with Chip Kelly.

Colin Kaepernick spread values

In 2016, Kaepernick sat on the San Francisco bench during the anthem before a Packers-49ers preseason game, explaining that he did it because the country “oppresses black people and people of color.” Kaepernick said it was not the first time he had done so and it did not attract immediate national attention.

Ahead of Week 6, Kelly announced that Kaepernick would be his starter, though he would win just one of his final 11 games with a season-long passer rating of 90.7 that ranked 17th in the league. That same rating would have had him in the top half of QBs in the 2017 season. Kaepernick also had a higher QB rating than both Philip Rivers and Eli Manning in his final season, while a repeat performance in 2017 would have seen him outperform Dak Prescott, Derek Carr and Cam Newton.

By the end of his career, Kaepernick’s calculated spread value would be sandwiched between Jacoby Brissett and Blaine Gabbert, and about 0.8 points better than Sam Darnold. Of course, Brissett and Gabbert remain in the league as backups while Darnold spent most of this season as the Carolina Panthers’ starting quarterback.

Of the 2021 quarterbacks with more than 200 snaps in which a pass was expected by our model, Kaepernick had a higher value than Tyler Huntley, Darnold and highly touted rookies Justin Fields and Zach Wilson.

“Looking at these guys, today, these quarterbacks today and stuff, Colin is everything that that those guys are,” Jeremy Kerley, 49ers wide receiver and teammate of Kaepernick in 2016, said of the quarterback in an exclusive interview with Stats Perform.

“He had all the tools; he was fast on the run. He could throw he was more accurate with it than people thought he was. I definitely think has the talent and the ability to play in a league today. You know, I think he deserves it.”

Half a decade on, there are a lot of ifs around Kaepernick.

For a moment he had left Hall of Famers speechless, and coaches scratching their heads.

He was a quarterback with the world at his feet.

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Data modeling by Kyle Cunningham-Rhoads. Graphic design by Matt Sisneros.