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Kap'n Crunch

Jim Kelly with wheels? Tim Tebow with touch? All the Niners know is that with Colin Kaepernick at the helm, its offense sails

If his first two starts are the foundation upon which his career will be built, the intriguing and potentially exhilarating question regarding 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick is, What's the ceiling?

Six days after dissecting a Chicago defense that was ranked No. 1 in takeaways and No. 10 against the pass, the second-year pro overcame a hostile crowd and a desperate Saints team in a 31--21 victory at the Superdome. It wasn't so much his statistics that left teammates and onlookers shaking their heads in wonder; his 16-of-25 performance for 231 yards, one touchdown and an interception were more solid than spectacular. Rather, it was his ball placement (hitting guys in stride), poise and athletic arrogance that impressed.

With the 49ers nursing a one-touchdown lead early in the fourth quarter, Kaepernick took the snap on third-and-11 from his 35-yard line and spotted tight end Delanie Walker breaking free down the right seam. Saints defenders were closing in around him, but as Kaepernick released the ball—which traveled over the linebackers and dropped in front of the safeties for a 25-yard gain—running back Frank Gore heard him let loose with, "Yeah! You m------------!"

The language might not be suitable for Sunday brunch, but in a rematch of last season's divisional playoff, with the crowd getting into it and Drew Brees looking to rally the Saints to their sixth win in seven games, it was everything Gore and his Niners teammates wanted to hear—a quarterback, their quarterback, displaying as much attitude as ability. "He's a great player," says tight end Vernon Davis. "He's one of those guys that makes the game so much more exciting."

Coach Jim Harbaugh wouldn't commit to Kaepernick as his full-time starter afterward. He said he played Kaepernick against the Saints because Alex Smith was exhibiting postconcussion symptoms early in the week, but four days before the Saints' showdown a source told SI that Harbaugh had informed Smith he was going with Kaepernick for non-health reasons.

The belief is that Kaepernick's deep ball and uninhibited running make the offense more dynamic. Defenses can no longer squat on short routes or load the box against the run.

That's not to say the switch to Kaepernick, a 6'4" 230-pounder from Turlock, Calif., who at Nevada set an FBS record with three consecutive seasons of 2,000 yards passing and 1,000 yards rushing, wasn't a risky move. After all, Smith took the Niners to the NFC Championship Game last season, and he ranks No. 1 in the league in completion percentage, at 70.0%, and No. 5 in QB rating (104.1).

But Kaepernick justified his starting spot by completing his first four passes, for 82 yards, and rushing for a seven-yard score on a read-option keeper. Among his completions on the day were gains of 45, 40 and 26 yards.

"The guy is just a football player," says Gore. "He's just out there playing. On one of my carries, he's like, Run the hell out of it. That gets you going, seeing your quarterback out there like that." It also may be the edge the Niners need in the hunt for the Super Bowl.

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LEAD BACK In two games as a starter, Kaepernick has run for a TD while throwing for 474 yards, three TDs and one pick.