SANTA CLARA, Calif. — San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh calls his favorites “football players.” Sounds pithy, but not really.
To Harbaugh, a real football player is about more than talent and skill. He’s tough and gritty.
That’s how Harbaugh was as an NFL quarterback, and that’s how he perceives his quarterback now, Colin Kaepernick.
So when Harbaugh watched Kaepernick tackle Green Bay Packer Tramon Williams after throwing an interception, and nearly get blown up in the process, he felt mixed emotions.
“Definitely I was holding my breath a little bit,” Harbaugh recalled. “But he’s a football player making a play, reacting.”
Harbaugh’s advice to Kaepernick: “Dodge bullets. Make plays and dodge bullets.”
That’s the thing about Kaepernick and his Carolina Panthers counterpart, Cam Newton, entering Sunday’s 1:05 p.m. playoff game at Bank of America Stadium: Fans love that they can make plays with their feet as well as their arms.
But every time Kaepernick or Newton takes off on a run, those fans feel what Harbaugh did on that tackle – “Hold your breath.”
In the Panthers’ 10-9 victory over the 49ers in November, Kaepernick ran little and not particularly well. He gained 16 yards on four carries. His team generated just 151 yards that day and Kaepernick was sacked six times.
It was very different in the 23-20 playoff victory over the Packers in Wisconsin. Kaepernick ran 16 times for a team-high 181 yards and two touchdowns. Some of those were scrambles. Some appeared to be designed runs. All of them exposed Kaepernick to potentially season-ending licks.
“When I’m on the field I’m not worried about my health,” Kaepernick said Wednesday at the 49ers practice facility. “I’m worried about trying to win the game and trying to do what’s best for this team.”
Kaepernick and Newton run at a remarkably similar rate. Each is second on his team in rushing this season. Kaepernick has 92 carries for 524 yards, a 5.7-yard average. Newton has 111 carries for 585 yards, a 5.3-yard average.
These are the NFL’s new wave: Strong, mobile, athletic quarterbacks who don’t just sit back in the pocket until it collapses around them. It’s exciting to watch these guys in a zone-read keeper or to extend plays with a scramble.
But considering the tens of millions each team will commit to such a quarterback, it’s risky business.
“That has helped us a lot. He can beat you with his legs or throw the ball,” said running back Frank Gore, who often making down-field blocks when Kaepernick takes off.
“When a play breaks down he can run and that frustrates a defense. I know it does.”
A prime example was the scramble Kaepernick made on third and 8 against the Packers to extend the 49ers’ game-winning drive. Sending out placekicker Phil Dawson to even attempt a field goal would have been dicey without Kaepernick’s run.
That’s not to say Kaepernick is effective only with his feet. He’s completed 58.4 percent of his passes this season for 21 touchdowns and 3,197 yards. If last year’s march to the Super Bowl didn’t establish Kaepernick as an elite passer, then his outplaying the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers in such frigid conditions is strong evidence.
Harbaugh, who played for the Chicago Bears, appreciates a quarterback who won’t surrender to the cold.
“He’s shown it in the rain, bad weather, footing or elements of precipitation,” Harbaugh said. “He can pierce a defense with velocity and tightness of the spiral. And also (he) really did a nice job with the touch on the ball as well. …
“Yeah, we’ve got a bad-weather quarterback.”
Bad weather, good weather. Feet or arm. Bottom line is Kaepernick is a dangerous guy, and no one understands that better than Panthers coach Ron Rivera.
“They showed a lot of faith in him when they traded Alex Smith away” to Kansas City, Rivera said. “That’s a tremendous message to a quarterback.
“You always have to think, ‘Colin Kaepernick will do whatever he has to do to win.’ ”
Rick Bonnell: (704) 358-5129. Twitter: @rick_bonnell