Blake Baxter

Newton And Kaepernick To Square Off In Battle Of Rising Stars

Created on Jan. 10, 2014 10:12 AM EST

The NFL postseason finally kicked off last weekend with a slew of fantastic Wild Card games (aside from Cincinnati-San Diego at least). The opening games featured a comeback for the ages, a dome team conquering the cold of Philadelphia and a (relatively) warm weather city team edging the Green Bay Packers in the frozen tundra of Lambeau field – on the precipice of a polar vortex, no less. This week, the action – and hopefully the temperatures – will be heating up with a quartet of fascinating quarterback matchups.

On Saturday, the theme of the day will be old guard versus new as Super Bowl winning quarterbacks Drew Brees and Tom Brady face off against rising young stars Russell Wilson and Andrew Luck, respectively. Sunday, however, will be the opposite, as the two games will pair quarterbacks with similar skill sets. The latter of the games will feature two pocket passers – one an aging future Hall of Famer coming off a record-breaking season; the other, a veteran in the midst of an impressive comeback year. Before that though, two young and ambitious QBs take center stage.

One of the most compelling storylines of last season was the promise and rise of the young quarterbacks. Three rookies – Luck, Wilson and Robert Griffin III – dominated the headlines. Unexpectedly though, a fourth young quarterback emerged and led his team further than any of them. Enter San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick.

Standing at 6-4, 230 pounds with lean, tattooed arms and impossibly long legs, Kaepernick is a physical specimen. Over the course of four seasons at Nevada, Kaepernick recorded over 10,000 passing yards and over 4,000 rushing yards. To this date, he is the only player in NCAA Division I history to accomplish that titanic feat. And, keep in mind he did so in an era in which Tim Tebow and, fittingly, Cam Newton won Heisman trophies for being dual-threat quarterbacks. But, because he played in the Mountain West and not a glamorous juggernaut like the SEC, the NFL overlooked him. Five NFL teams selected QBs (Newton, Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder and Andy Dalton) before the San Francisco 49ers selected Kaepernick in the second round of the 2011 NFL Draft.

In 2011, as a backup to then-starter Alex Smith, Kaepernick seldom saw playing time his rookie season. But in Week 10 of the 2012 season, he got his chance to shine when Smith went down with a concussion. Kaepernick took advantage of the opportunity, leading the 49ers to a 5-2 finish at the end of the season to clinch the NFC West title. San Francisco utilized Kaepernick’s athleticism by running the read-option. In his first career playoff game, Kaepernick unforgettably torched the Packers for 181 rushing yards and two touchdowns, while throwing for 263 yards and two more touchdowns.

He went on to lead the 49ers all the way to the Super Bowl before falling to the Baltimore Ravens (despite a memorable second half comeback).

This past season, Kaepernick started off the year with another fantastic performance against Green Bay – the best of his career in fact. Kaepernick threw for an astounding 412 yards and three touchdowns that day, but his numbers tapered off a bit after that. Nonetheless, he had a solid season, accumulating 3,197 passing yards and 21 touchdowns along with 524 rushing yards and four scores on the ground. Last week, Kaepernick recorded 227 passing yards, 98 rushing yards and one touchdown, and the 49ers had the Packers' number again. Now, only Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers stand in his way for what San Francisco is hoping will be another magical postseason run.

Kaepernick’s “diamond in the rough emerging from seemingly nowhere” narrative is in stark contrast to that of Cam Newton. Newton had something of a checkered reputation while in college – complete with a laptop theft and recruiting violation allegations – but he was nothing short of brilliant on the field. After a dazzling, Heisman-winning 2010 season in which he recorded 2,854 passing yards, 1,586 rushing yards, 30 passing touchdowns, 24 rushing touchdowns and a completion percentage of 65.4, Newton was selected with the first overall pick of the 2011 NFL Draft.

In his rookie season, Newton was spectacular; as he became the first rookie quarterback to throw for 4,000 yards and was even elected to the Pro Bowl. In addition, he terrorized teams with his legs, recording 706 rushing yards and 14 rushing touchdowns. However, unlike Kaepernick, Newton had a shoddy supporting cast his first season in the league. The 2011 Panthers finished at just 6-10. It was telling, though, that the team was unbeatable when Newton took care of the ball. In other words, the Panthers were 6-0 when Newton had no turnovers, and were 0-10 when Newton committed at least one turnover.

The following season, the Panthers continued to struggle. They lacked a potent running game, so Newton was forced to carry the load. He actually led the team in rushing with 740 yards. His passing, in some regards, suffered. In 2012, Newton had less passing yards and touchdowns than in 2011, but there were bright spots, too. In addition to his impressive rushing, he reduced his number of interceptions and improved his passer rating. But his team’s mediocre 7-9 record and his own sulky demeanor on the sidelines caused many to question whether Newton, as talented as he might have been, was really a franchise quarterback. As a result, he was conspicuously excluded from each and every excitable young quarterback discussion.

The embattled signal caller’s third season was a completely different story. Newton still had the flair and the towering presence – at 6-5, 245 pounds, he is even more imposing than Kaepernick – but gone was the petulant attitude. In its stead was a more focused and mature aura. There was an unwavering patience to him that his teammates and his head coach Ron Rivera had never seen before. He eschewed his first instinct to scramble and saved his brilliance only for times of need. Statistically, Newton's numbers do not look significantly different than previous years, but if you watched every game, you know that this was indisputably the best season of his young career. Backed by a consistently phenomenal defense and a few stellar performances from unsung heroes like WRs Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon, Newton led the Panthers, first to a surprising eight-game win streak, and then to the NFC South title.

It has been an impressive run for Newton (and the Panthers), no doubt, but he knows that once you get to this stage, the only thing that matters is winning. Back in Week 10, the last time these two teams met, the Panthers barely survived San Francisco, beating them 10-9 in what was a defensive showdown. That could very well be the case again this time.

But with this much at stake, do not be surprised if it comes to the play of the two gifted and ultracompetitive young quarterbacks. Their stories and their backgrounds are very different, but their skillsets and their ambitions are very much the same.

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