In his first season as an NFL quarterback, Colin Kaepernick took the 49ers to the Super Bowl.
In his second season, he came within 18 yards of returning the Niners to the NFL’s biggest game.
Yet Kaepernick’s mistakes in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s NFC Championship Game at Seattle’s CenturyLink Field are what will be remembered this offseason. His two interceptions and a lost fumble proved costly in the 23-17 loss to the 49ers’ biggest rivals.
“I didn’t play good enough to win,” Kaepernick told reporters Sunday night. “I turned the ball over three times. I cost us this game.”
In going for the victory from the Seattle 18 with 30 seconds to play, Kaepernick tried to throw a fade route to receiver Michael Crabtree in the back right corner of the end zone. But Seattle corner Richard Sherman played it well, leaping to tip the ball away from Crabtree and back into the hands of his teammate Malcolm Smith.
Just like that, the 49ers’ eight-game winning streak and run toward a second consecutive NFC championship was over.
If Kaepernick’s ball had been just a few inches higher, it likely would have fallen into Crabtree’s arms. But we’ll never know.
“I could’ve put it a little deeper in the corner and gave only Crab a chance,” said Kaepernick, who saw the one-on-one matchup of Sherman on Crabtree and went for the game-winner. “I’ll take that any time,” said Kaepernick.
Added 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh: “It was a well-thrown ball, and from where I was looking, it looked like an inch the other way, it’s a touchdown pass.”
In the end, the 49ers’ young quarterback wasn’t quite up to the huge task of leading his team past the No. 1 seeded Seahawks on their home turf, where they’ve lost just one game over the past two seasons.
Kaepernick was electric at times Sunday. His 58-yard run in the second quarter set up the touchdown that positioned his team for a 10-3 halftime lead, and his running -- 130 yards on 11 carries -- proved to be San Francisco’s biggest offensive weapon, with the Seahawks stuffing Frank Gore (11 carries, 14 yards) time after time.
But Kaepernick was only so-so passing Sunday, completing 14-of-24 for 153 yards, one TD and the two picks.
And Sunday’s loss marked the second straight year the 49ers have fallen just a few yards short of the end zone and a championship. Both seasons came to an end with Kaepernick trying to hit Crabtree on a fade route in the right corner of the end zone.
Kaepernick has played so well the past two seasons that’s it hard to remember he’s started a grand total of 29 games in the NFL and is just 26 years old.
He experienced hard times over the 2013 season, overcoming a mid-year slump in which fans and media were asking, “What’s wrong with Colin Kaepernick?” But then he played beautifully down the stretch, leading San Francisco to eight straight wins, including two playoff victories in hostile environments in Green Bay and Carolina.
During that eight-game winning streak, he threw 12 touchdown passes vs. two interceptions. He was on a roll.
Now, he and the 49ers will regroup over this offseason, and it seems likely that Kaepernick will come back even stronger in 2014. At just 26, he is already 17-6-0 in the regular season, 4-2 in the postseason and has five fourth-quarter comebacks and six game-winning drives – including this year’s playoff-opening 23-20 victory over Green Bay three weeks ago.
Last week, former 49ers great Joe Montana said Kaepernick still had flaws, and they popped up Sunday vs. Seattle.
“Sometimes he needs to be more accurate in the pocket with pressure,” said Montana.
So, Kaepernick remains a work in progress.
“We all know Kaepernick has flaws,” wrote NFL.com’s Dan Hanzus. “All quarterbacks lacking experience do. Kaepernick will remain the answer for the Niners because there are few players in the league who can match his raw ability. But he’s not there yet. On a stage like this against an opponent like that, the flaws were bound to show.”