A franchise quarterback, taken with the first overall pick in the NFL draft, goes down with an injury. An unheralded second-year QB takes his place. The original starter recovers from injury, but by that time, he's lost his job to the young gun, who miraculously leads his team to the Super Bowl while the healthy veteran sits on the sidelines.
That's the story of San Francisco 49ers phenom Colin Kaepernick's surprising season. It's also the 2001 story of a once-unheard-of sixth-round-pick named Tom Brady.
Stylistically, Brady and Kaepernick couldn't be more different. The New England QB is a traditional pocket passer with the speed and agility of a phone book. Kaepernick, on the other hand, is one of the much-hyped "quarterbacks of the future," a guy with a great arm who's just as dangerous running the ball. His 181 rushing yards against the Packers this postseason were the most ever by a quarterback in a single game.
But style aside, the two players share a striking similarity in the way their sophomore seasons played out.
Each player got his break only when an injury felled his team's starter. And in both cases, the starters had been playing at an elite level before going down with injuries. Yet they remained second string even after being cleared to play.
In Brady's case, he impressed the Patriots brass enough that they stuck with him even after Drew Bledsoe — who had for years been the face of the franchise — returned from a collapsed lung he'd suffered in the team's second game of the 2001 season. The Patriots picked Bledsoe first overall in the 1993 draft, and he soon became one of the game's leading quarterbacks, earning three Pro Bowl selections (he'd later get a fourth with Buffalo) and routinely finishing near the top of the league in passing yards. Heading into the 2001 season, he'd thrown for at least 3,000 yards in seven consecutive years.
As for Kaepernick, he took over mid-season when Alex Smith went down with a concussion. Smith, the first-overall draft pick in 2005, didn't have Bledsoe's immediate, consistent success, but for the past two seasons he'd been — statistically, at least — one of the game's best quarterbacks. In 2011, he posted a top-ten passer rating while throwing the fewest interceptions of any starter. This year, he notched the third-best passer rating in football, trailing only revered quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers. Smith's completion percentage, at 70.2, led the league, and was one point off Drew Brees' single-season record. Technically, Smith didn't qualify for the end-of-season leaderboards because of his reduced playing time — quarterbacks must average 14 pass attempts per game to qualify — but he needed to try only six more passes to do so, suggesting his numbers are no aberration.
Nevertheless, like Bledsoe, Smith lost his job to a younger, promising replacement. "I feel like the only thing I did to lose my job was get a concussion," Smith has said of his benching.
Though hotly debated, each decision paid off, with the Patriots and now the 49ers rolling through the playoffs, both, coincidentally, as number two seeds. Kaepernick will now play for a Super Bowl championship in New Orleans' Superdome — the very same field where Brady won his first title.
The only thing needed to complete the comparison (aside from the 49ers winning the title, obviously) is for the 49ers to trade Smith in the coming offseason, as the Patriots did with Bledsoe. Wouldn't you know it, according to reports this week, the 49ers are already exploring that very prospect.