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To Hit Kaepernick Or Not, That Is The Question

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Colin Kaepernick will command the attention of the Green Bay Packers. Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images.
Colin Kaepernick will command the attention of the Green Bay Packers. Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images.

This week on ESPN's "Mike and Mike," Green Bay LB Clay Matthews discussed the Packers' season opener in San Francisco. Matthews talked about how the best way to slow down a dynamic running quarterback like the 49ers' Colin Kaepernick is to hit him early and often. Those comments drew a typical response from San Francisco head coach Jim Harbaugh.

Harbaugh said in a press conference that he thought Matthews's comments sound like targeting a specific player and that he wonders about the legality of hitting a quarterback running the option, just to hit him, was legal. Awareness of NFL defenses targeting specific players and trying to injure them has been at an elevated level since the New Orleans Saints' 2010 bountygate scandal. It's not fair to say that the Packers are targeting Kaepernick to take him out of the game with an injury. It should be obvious to say that Green Bay will be targeting him while he's on the field to contain him. Kaepernick is an outstanding athlete that, left unchecked, can torch a defense with either his arm or feet.

This puts the Packers in a precarious position that defenses have been in for a few years now. It's like when Han Solo told Chewbacca to "fly casual." How do you go after a guy without making it look like you are going after him? They need to make Kaepernick uncomfortable. They need to get him in a different mental state, one in which the contact is a thought in his mind. But it's about more than Kaepernick himself, it's about the whole scheme. If they put enough hits on Kaepernick, the 49ers will be forced to limit their running of the read option to protect their quarterback. That makes the 49ers offense much easier to defend. Yet if you do anything to create the perception that you are trying to be more physical with Kaepernick than is deemed necessary, your defense will face penalties, fines, maybe even suspensions. 

Harbaugh knows that in this drama he has the upper hand. The NFL protects quarterbacks from harm like Mother Parker in "A Christmas Story" protected Randy from the cold. If Harbaugh can put out the media spin that the Packers might be illegally targeting Kaepernick, and then something does happen to the 49ers quarterback in Sunday's game, then the story has already been written.

Facing the 49ers this week, in already the juiciest game on the schedule, has now taken on a new dynamic because of Matthews's and Harbaugh's comments. The best case scenario for Green Bay would be for Kaepernick to be ineffective but completely unscathed and not the victim of any vicious hits from the Packers, even if they are legal. If something happens to Kaepernick as a result of an impact from a Green Bay player, the Packers will have a new distraction to deal with, which is something no team needs.