In his playoff debut Colin Kaepernick ran rough shot through the fittingly cheese-like defense of the Green Bay Packers to the tune of 181 rushing yards and a pair of touchdowns. Just when fans and media members started to believe we were seeing the championship ascension of a true rush-first quarterback, Kap put the run game in his back pocket and unleashed a 16-for-21 accuracy clinic and dissected the Falcons secondary en route to the Super Bowl in New Orleans.
Stopping a running quarterback, especially in the read-option/pistol style, is about gap discipline. It is about not over pursuing off the perimeter. And while it sounds remedial, it most often comes down to ball awareness. But there are far more qualified individuals than myself capable of breaking down the Xs and Os of defeating the formerly college-only run system. (Matt Bowen would be my local choice. Pete Prisco of CBS Sports would be my national guy if you can wade through his genuine disdain for read-option/pistol system itself.)
There is another way to stop the Kaepernicks and Wilsons and Griffins of the world. You run with them, sideline-to-sideline. You match their remarkable athleticism with athleticism of your own. In his prime, throughout nearly the entirety of the previous decade, Ray Lewis was matched only by the Bears’ Brian Urlacher when it came to athleticism at the middle linebacker position. There wasn’t a quarterback or running back in the league able to avoid his dogged pursuit.
It would be sacrilegious in some NFL circles to posit the theory that Ray Lewis is no longer a very competent middle linebacker. Commissioner Goodell, the networks and Lewis’ future employer ESPN have spent the last three weeks attempting to sweep the infamous events of Atlanta under the rug while celebrating Ray’s recently bloated tackles numbers. (Studying Lewis on tape will also reveal the sheer ridiculousness of the tackle statistic. Every time Lewis approaches the pile you he is credited with bringing down the ball carrier.) One can not quantify Lewis’ ability to call defenses or inspire others around him. He is the unquestioned heart and soul of the Ravens. But physically, he is simply not Ray Lewis any longer.
I wonder if Jim Harbaugh won’t look at the tape of the 2012 Baltimore Ravens and notice the slow, aging middle linebacker wearing #52. I wonder if Jim Harbaugh won’t unleash his running quarterback in Lewis’ direction throughout the first half in an effort to test the future Hall of Famer’s speed and – perhaps more importantly – stamina. I wonder if the lasting image from the final football game of the 2012 season might not be Kaepernick surging down the sideline while Lewis watches from a distance.
I also wonder if Lewis isn’t capable of channeling the Ghost of Super Bowl Past and delivering one more brilliant on-field performance. Knowing he’ll wake up Monday morning a former player, will Lewis leave everything available to him on the Superdome carpet?
For me it is the most intriguing match-up of Super Bowl XLVII. Colin Kaepernick, in style and ability, is the future of the sport. Ray Lewis is the immediate past. Will the NFL take its first major step into tomorrow? Or will the sport pause one final time to reflect on previous greatness?