The 49ers defeated the Green Bay Packers, 45-31, to advance to the NFC championship game. San Francisco will either host the Seattle Seahawks or travel to Atlanta to play the Falcons, depending on Sunday’s outcome.
In Kaepernick’s first playoff start, he did everything right. He broke records, sped away with dazzling runs, completed hairpin passes.
“I don’t want to be categorized,” he said afterward, and indeed, it’s difficult to classify him as a better runner, passer or on-field leader.
As he did it, Alex Smith stood on the sideline, where he’s been since Nov. 11. That’s when Smith, at the time the 49ers’ starter, suffered a concussion, giving way to Kaepernick, and eventually prompting Harbaugh to name the former Nevada star as his permanent starter.
When Harbaugh made that decision, it justified a fear that few NFL players talk about and gave life to a concern the NFL cannot afford. By getting injured and admitting it to his team’s training staff, Smith — the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2005 — lost his job and saw his future become murky. It became the perfect reason for a player to lie about an injury, regardless of the long-term health ramifications.
This is the same consideration that led Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Brady Quinn to conceal symptoms of a concussion earlier this season. At the time, Quinn said he was afraid that admitting his symptoms would land him back on the bench, where he’d been for three years. It’s the same worry that New York Jets quarterback Greg McElroy had when he “wasn’t exactly truthful,” as Coach Rex Ryan put it, about his own head injury. McElroy was the third quarterback who rose to become the starter, and suddenly an injury was going to derail his rise?
And it’s the same dangerous mentality that led Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III to continue playing last week against the Seattle Seahawks, despite a knee injury that not only rendered him mostly ineffective throughout most of that contest, but it also led to knee surgery on Wednesday and a long rehabilitation process that has his 2013 season in jeopardy.
“Mike [Shanahan] asked me if I was okay,” said Griffin, despite overwhelming evidence that he wasn’t himself. “I said yes.”
Griffin possessed job security that Quinn and McElroy lacked, as he is his team’s clear franchise quarterback. But this attitude isn’t about reality. It’s the motivational world that football players live in, the way they’re wired, and a belief that’s reinforced each day on NFL, college and even high-school practice fields: Play hard every day, show up, and know the difference between being hurt and being injured — or watch another player take your place.