Colin Kaepernick is on the brink of quarterbacking the San Francisco 49ers to a second consecutive Super Bowl appearance. But the greatest winner in the franchise's history is only so impressed.
Joe Montana thinks Kaepernick comes up short as a pocket passer.
"I like his mobility and that he's getting the ball downfield," Montana told USA TODAY Sports in a wide-ranging interview. "But sometimes, he needs to be more accurate in the pocket with pressure.
"The game is changing. Nobody wants to throw with pressure anymore. But the guys who can win in this league are the ones who can make throws from the pocket."
As the 49ers prepare for Sunday's NFC title game at Seattle against their most heated rival, the Seahawks, criticism of Kaepernick from Montana might be construed as bulletin-board material coming from an unlikely source. Montana is the 49ers' greatest legend after all, leading the franchise to four Super Bowl victories during the 1980s and is the only player to win three Super Bowl MVP awards.
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He's also a highly credible source willing to tell it as he sees it.
What does he think of the 49ers' chances to get back to the Super Bowl?
"I think they've got a great opportunity to get back and even win it," he said. "I like their chances with (wideout Michael) Crabtree back. Now they just need to feed the ball to (tailback Frank) Gore a little more — if he doesn't take himself out of the game."
Back to the quarterback. Although Kaepernick is 3-0 in road playoff games, Montana says that he won't reach his full potential until he becomes more consistent in making plays from the pocket — which includes hanging in and taking a hit while making a throw.
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"Kaepernick still needs to get better at that," Montana said. "He'll look and then he's off and running. I still think the thing is the pocket and making those tight throws from the pocket."
When he mentions tight throws, Montana is referring to the accuracy to fit passes into small windows.
"He'll make some," Montana said of Kaepernick, "but a lot of times guys are wide open, and he misses them."
Courage might be the most underrated component for a great quarterback. Not everyone is willing to stand in the pocket and read through progressions to throw while knowing a hit is coming.
Although not referring to Kaepernick specifically, Montana agrees with that statement in general. He also adds insight on why it's tougher for mobile quarterbacks to excel in the pocket.
"You're going to get hit in the teeth," he said. "The hardest part is throwing the ball accurately. If you're not a pocket guy, you're not used to it."
Kaepernick made two of the biggest plays of the postseason with his legs — third-down scampers of 24 and 11 yards, respectively, on a go-ahead drive and then the winning drive in the fourth quarter against the Green Bay Packers in the wild-card round.
Yet during the regular season, his completion rate and passer rating decreased from last season. He completed 58.4% of his throws and posted a 91.6 passer rating in 2013, compared to 62.4% and 98.3 clips in 2012.
And he ran more.
Kaepernick ranked third among NFL quarterbacks with 92 rushes in 2013, trailing Cam Newton (111) and Russell Wilson (96). Kaepernick averaged 5.75 rushes per game, compared to 4.8 in 2012.
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Montana, whose mobility was typically demonstrated on sprint-out passes and with footwork to buy time in the pocket, realizes that the NFL has trended to design schemes to feature mobile quarterbacks like the two who will meet in the NFC title game.
Yet that doesn't make him any more of a fan of the read-option packages that the 49ers, Seahawks and other teams use.
"So many different things come up from the college game, like the run-and-shoot," Montana said, referring to the scheme the Houston Oilers used during the 1980s and '90s. "What happens? It always come back to, 'Can the guy throw the ball from the pocket?' You'll see some things catch on for a while, and then they disappear. How long did the Wildcat last in the NFL?"
As for the read-option, Montana noted that it was used less around the league this season.
"It didn't take the guys (on defense) long to figure out, 'I'm going to make the quarterback take the hits.' " Montana said. " 'Do you want Gore to carry it 35 times? Or do you want the quarterback to carry it? And I'll hit him and see at the end of the game if he can still throw accurate passes?' Teams are going to take shots on him because they can."
It was great to pick Montana's brain. Especially now. This used to be Montana's time of year.
Not only did he win four rings, he played at his best when the stakes were highest. In four Super Bowls, he threw 11 TD passes with zero interceptions, with a 127.8 efficiency rating.
Did he feel that he consciously needed to try raising his game for postseason competition?
"The thing you have to concentrate on is the mistakes," he said. "The turnovers. Sometimes, you are more conservative than you normally would be, but the key is to find a way to minimize errors.
"Look at last weekend. The 49ers would not have been in the game if not for the penalties and turnovers (by the Carolina Panthers). You have to stop the mistakes. You have to be a little more cautious. When you do that, you perform better. I don't know if it's so much trying to raise the bar. Sometimes, it's hard. But when you try to do that are outside of what you can do, that's when the mistakes come."
Montana, 57, still lives in the Bay Area. Through his real estate company, he's engaged in a massive development plan for a hotel and entertainment venue that will be adjacent to the 49ers' new stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. He's also active with his wife, Jennifer, in a charity project flowing from Jennifer's design of key necklaces.
And he's forever an icon – the man that New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady grew up idolizing.
How cool is that, Joe Cool? Brady's somewhat mimicked Montana on the Super Bowl stage.
"I played when he was growing up in the Bay Area," Montana said. "It's sort of like the way I was with the Steelers, watching (Terry) Bradshaw when I was growing up. It's nice to hear that someone thinks that way about you. Especially when they're playing great."
Speaking of the good old days, Montana is thrilled that former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo is among the 15 finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame for a third consecutive year.
Although the late coach, Bill Walsh, was the architect of the strategy that boosted the 49ers to prominence in the 1980s, Montana stressed how important DeBartolo was in establishing the franchise's culture — which included hiring Walsh — for success.
"And he's got five rings to back it up," Montana said.
Beyond the football success, though, Montana said that DeBartolo's bond with his players transcended the sport and business. He points to DeBartolo's lifelong support of former 49ers safety Jeff Fuller, who was partially paralyzed during a 1989 game, as the ultimate show of respect.
"When he said, 'Treat them like family,' he really meant it," Montana said. "The stuff he's done for Jeff, he didn't have to do that. Who else does that? He's just a different person. He had a fire about him, but his love for the game and his players was so genuine."
Montana feels fortunate that his health is intact. Even so, he's followed news about the NFL concussion lawsuit brought forth by former players — and its delayed $765 million settlement — knowing of the difficulty facing many of his peers.
"It's a matter of getting the NFL to do the right thing, when they know they've had problems," Montana said. "Unfortunately, it'll take time."
Montana hung in and took so many crushing hits in order to make the tight throws, the type that he now feels that Kaepernick can make more of.
Given what's been learned over the years about the long-term effects of head injuries, did it come at a cost for Montana?
"I feel fine," he said. "But my wife will disagree. If I lose something, she'll say, 'You scare me.'
"I had six or seven documented concussions, so I had a lot more than that. But I feel fine."
And still, undeniably, Joe Cool.
Follow NFL columnist Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell
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