For Colin Kaepernick, it was all noise pollution in the bowels of the Superdome after the game—the questions from reporters, the drifting sounds of celebrating Ravens, the television replays. So after completing his mandatory media obligations, the second-year quarterback hopped onto the back of a golf cart and slipped on a pair of Beats by Dre headphones.
He may have succeeded in silencing the voices on the outside, but that likely did little to quiet the ones in his head. Kaepernick is his own harshest critic, and he judged that he had "made too many mistakes for us to win." Key among them: Midway through the second quarter he threw a brutally ugly interception, far over the head of Randy Moss, into Ed Reed's hands, while under minimal pressure. Then, with two minutes left in the game, he threw incomplete on three consecutive plays from the Ravens' five-yard line, the last on fourth down. "[They] will stay with me the rest of my life," he said of the errors, showing a mix of anger, frustration and disappointment.
Whether Kaepernick should be so hard on himself is debatable. He did have his struggles against the Ravens, but he also demonstrated—in just his 10th NFL start—why the conversation about potentially dominant young quarterbacks should not be limited to Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck and Cam Newton. Against Baltimore he was 16 of 28 passing for 302 yards and a touchdown; he carried seven times for 62 yards and another score; and his passer rating of 91.7 was better than that of six of the winning Super Bowl QBs since 2000. Most memorably, with the 49ers trailing by 22 in the third quarter, he led San Francisco on consecutive drives that ended, thrillingly, touchdown, touchdown, field goal, touchdown, downs.
In Kaepernick's head, that last series will overshadow the others. But it was easy to see the youngster's development even in failure. Take the fourth-down play that sealed the outcome. The 49ers showed the pistol formation, from which they sometimes run the zone read option, and had two receivers to the left with wideout Michael Crabtree to the right. As those three players got to the line, they were to check with Kaepernick, who could call a route package based on the defense.
The QB saw the Ravens in a Blitz Zero alignment—meaning that the entire front seven would be coming, leaving the receivers in one-on-one coverage—and he correctly called for Crabtree to run a fade route to the corner of the end zone. But the play broke down as linebacker Dannell Ellerbe crashed through the left guard-tackle gap, hitting Kaepernick as he released the ball. (It didn't help, replays showed, that cornerback Jimmy Smith had his outside arm around Crabtree and had held the receiver's jersey.) Kaepernick's throw flew over Crabtree's head and out-of-bounds, but he gets credit for calmly running the play the best he could under the circumstances, in one of the most stressful situations in sports. "Colin was cool the entire game," said left tackle Joe Staley. "The same he's been the entire season. Our future is very bright with him."
Kaepernick wasn't around to hear his teammates' praise; he was engaged with those voices in his head. Which could be good news for the 49ers. Their surprising first-year starter has something to drive him this off-season.