Colin Kaepernick grew up watching some of the more entertaining quarterbacks of the past couple of decades, probably never envisioning he'd one day join their ranks.
"When I got into high school and college, I watched Vince Young and Michael Vick a lot, (Donovan) McNabb, (Randall) Cunningham," the 49ers' phenomenon said last week in Santa Clara, Calif. "They were all quarterbacks who were mobile and could make plays."
But none of them truly changed the way quarterback was played in the NFL. Instead, it's the 25-year old Kaepernick, who leads the 49ers into today's NFC title game against the Falcons, who could be among the trailblazers to usher in a new era of signal callers.
The success of dual-threat quarterbacks this season is undeniable. The Redskins' Robert Griffin III, the Seahawks' Russell Wilson, Kaepernick — quarterbacks with athleticism are gaining a foothold in the NFL, the only level of football in which the traditional, drop-back style of playing the position remains the status quo.
Can a second-year quarterback who was on the bench two months ago really contribute to changing that?
"People need to understand, it's not going away," ESPN analyst and former Bucs quarterback Trent Dilfer said. "It's never going away."
Dilfer has long been involved with ESPN's annual "Elite 11" quarterback competition, which brings together the nation's top high school signal callers, most of whom have gone on to become pros. He has observed a shift.
"For years I've been kind of seeing this coming," Dilfer said. "The biggest, baddest dude is now playing quarterback. Now they take the 6-5, 250-pound great athlete who is the biggest, baddest kid on the block, and they make him a quarterback. And then he gets this great training growing up.
"It's a natural progression that the quarterback run game is going to enter the NFL. Purists are going to continue to say (defenses) are going to figure it out. That's just not true. They've never had to deal with a Colin Kaepernick, (Griffin), the next generation of quarterbacks who are pass-first but also have this physicality."
Among that group, which includes the Panthers' Cam Newton, Kaepernick stands out — literally. For one, he's massive. Listed at 6 feet 4 and 230 pounds, the second-round draft pick out of Nevada is bigger than that by most accounts. And his speed is impressive for a man his size. It takes a certain breed of player to rush for a quarterback postseason-record 181 yards against the Packers last weekend, complementing it with 263 passing yards.
"He may be the fastest of all the quarterbacks that we've faced," said Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson, whose team faced Newton twice and Griffin once during the regular season and Wilson last weekend in a division playoff game.
"He finds a crease and not even defensive backs can catch him. He can turn a play that looks like a broken play and turn it into a 70-yard touchdown run."
The NFL still is dominated by pocket passers, and its most accomplished quarterbacks, including Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, aren't considered runners. But several factors could bring more open-mindedness about the position from coaches: the kinds of players coming out of college, the influence of the college game on the pros (see new Eagles coach Chip Kelly) and the success of the NFL's athletic, young quarterbacks.
Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez, 36, recognizes the evolution: "I was telling (Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan), 'You're going to be a dinosaur here pretty soon.' "
Change must be done in moderation, however. In a league in which some linebackers can run step for step with receivers, exposing quarterbacks to too many hits has consequences. The concussion (against the Falcons) and knee injury Griffin sustained this season are proof.
But when deployed smartly, the read-option plays being used by the 49ers and other teams can have maximum impact. Kaepernick averaged 6.3 rushes in the eight regular-season games he started or in which he took the majority of the snaps (he had 16 against the Packers).
"(Kaepernick) is not a passing quarterback who can run a little bit," 49ers offensive tackle Joe Staley said. "He's not a running quarterback who can pass a little bit. He's equally good at both. I think that creates a little bit of hesitation with defenses, and we're trying to attack that."
With coach and renowned quarterback tutor Jim Harbaugh at the helm, the 49ers seem to have found balance.
"It puts a lot of pressure on the play caller to not go to the well too often," Dilfer said. "It's not going to be where the quarterback's running tendency is 10 or 12 times a game, because he'll never last. But when the play caller is judicious about it, there are some huge plays to be made."
Huge plays such as Kaepernick's 56-yard touchdown run against Green Bay.
With each play of that sort, Kaepernick helps his team get closer to the Super Bowl while contributing to changing the game.
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at [email protected]