SANTA CLARA –- Two years ago, the topic was worthy of a spirited debate.
Cam Newton was the No. 1 overall pick of the 2011 draft. Four other quarterbacks were chosen before the 49ers traded up to select the new-age player who might have been the best of the bunch.
“It’s something I definitely haven’t forgot,” Colin Kaepernick said in October 2013 of seeing five quarterback-needy teams select players at that position before his name was called with the No. 36 overall pick.
In the divisional round of the NFC playoffs that season, Kaepernick threw for a touchdown and rushed for another score to pull off the 23-10 victory against Newton’s Carolina Panthers.
After his rushing touchdown, Kaepernick celebrated in front of the Panthers’ home crowd with the same Superman pose that had become part of Newton’s act.
But with Super Bowl 50 set to be played Sunday in Kaepernick’s home stadium, there is no longer any question which team has the better player.
[RELATED: Super Bowl bound Cam Newton wins NFL MVP]
The 49ers benched Kaepernick after eight games. Kaepernick and the organization have soured on each other. Meanwhile, Newton was a near-unanimous choice as the league’s most valuable player. He will be the most dynamic player on the field when the Panthers take on the Denver Broncos at Levi’s Stadium with the Lombardi Trophy on the line.
Kaepernicking is out. Dabbing is in.
“If you’d ask me this question three years ago, we’d be looking the other way, wouldn’t we?” said Phil Simms, a former Super-Bowl winning quarterback who will work as the analyst in the CBS-TV booth for Super Bowl 50.
“Colin Kaepernick was in the Super Bowl. It’s amazing. Three years ago he was in the Super Bowl. And now people are going, ‘You think he’ll be in the league next year?’ Yes, when you’re 6-foot-4 or 6-5 and you can really run and you have a great right arm, your chances of finding a place in the NFL are pretty good.”
So how, why and where did things flip?
Many experts cited both nature and nurture as the reasons for Newton’s ascension and Kaepernick’s decline.
“Those early teams that Kap played on were better football teams than the ones Cam were playing on,” said former 49ers coach Steve Mariucci, now an NFL Network analyst. “And now that has switched. This Carolina team is a better team than what the Niners have on the field.
“Kap lost some of his supporting cast, some of his linemen, some of his receivers, and, I think, some of his confidence.”
[RELATED: Harbaugh disappointed with how 2015 unfolded for Kaepernick]
When Kaepernick took over for Alex Smith in the middle of the 2012 season, the 49ers featured one of the league’s best offensive lines, an outstanding run game with Frank Gore and a top defense. Hall-of-Fame quarterback Steve Young, an ESPN analyst, also points out the 49ers also had a strong locker room of leaders.
“Everything was set, so he was able to fill in whatever he had, which was a lot,” Young said. “All of a sudden, that all falls away and now you got to carry all the water. That’s a whole new job. That takes time. You got to grow into that role. That’s not something that just happens. And so you can see it ran him over. There were times on the field it was . . . oh, my gosh, it was heavy.”
Seemingly from the moment Kaepernick stepped on the field with the 49ers, there seemed to be confusion about what was expected from him. Was he a runner? Was he a passer?
He spent his offseasons working on getting bigger, faster and stronger – attributes that nobody associates with the standard skills of playing the quarterback position at a high level.
In his first NFL playoff game, he rushed for 181 yards against the Green Bay Packers. Yet, he was also fully capable of throwing for 412 yards, which he did in the 2013 regular-season opener against the Packers after throwing for 302 yards in the 49ers’ Super Bowl XLVII loss to the Baltimore Ravens.
“As much as anything with those two guys, it’s a confidence and a comfort level of where they’re at in their careers,” said two-time league MVP Kurt Warner, an analyst for the NFL Network.
“Even when Kap had great success, I never felt like he was playing in his wheelhouse, that they found something that accentuated his skills. He had a great run based on how teams were playing him and the unknown of Kap. But I still think he’s growing into who he is as a quarterback and what he can excel at. I think Cam is very, very confident in where he’s at as a quarterback now – what his strengths are, what his weaknesses are, what he can do. He’s in a system, around a coach, who understands how to utilize those strengths.”
Last offseason was the first time Kaepernick devoted time in the offseason to working on the art of being an NFL quarterback with a private coach. He spent approximately 10 weeks in Arizona working with Dennis Gile on his mechanics. Warner also dropped in from time-to-time to watch film with Kaepernick and school him on reading defenses and anticipating.
“Much of Kaepernick’s early success stemmed from the league not having a good feel for the read option,” said NFL Films’ Greg Cosell, who closely studies film of players throughout the league. “But at the end of the day, what hurts Kaepernick is he’s not a very accurate thrower. He’s not a quick processor of information. He’s not a turn-it-loose quarterback. He has to see it before he throws it. That doesn’t work in the NFL long-term.”
Cosell points out that Newton was an “erratic passer” in his earlier years. And while he still misses throws from time to time, his accuracy has noticeably improved. Cosell stated that Newton’s mental game has progressed, as he does a better job of manipulating defenses with his head, eyes and shoulder fakes.
“Obviously, they probably get compared, but they’re different players,” Carolina quarterbacks coach Ken Dorsey said. “I really can only speak to Cam because I’ve been around him more. Any player in the NFL is going to have good and bad. It’s just a matter of riding through those storms and coming out of the other end.
“The thing about Cam is, he gets it. He has a tremendous football IQ and feel for the game. He’s got a unique skill set, but he’s so underrated for his preparation and everything he puts into it. If you’re just going to show up on Sunday, you can win some games. But you can’t get to the Super Bowl and to the level that he’s at right now without a tremendous amount of preparation.”
[RELATED: Crabtree challenges Kap to study more: 'Get in those books']
There were whispers last season among the 49ers that Kaepernick did not spend as much time on the less-glamorous tasks, such as studying the playbook and watching film. Former 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree, during a Thursday appearance on Fox Sports 1 , voiced those concerns publicly.
“I hope he gets in those books and watch that film and know what he’s doing out there,” Crabtree said.
There did not appear to be anybody on the offensive side of the ball with the 49ers last season who knew what they were doing – or who could provide Kaepernick with a detailed plan for success.
When asked why Kaepernick has faded, former NFL quarterback Boomer Esiason, an analyst on CBS, stated, “Jim Harbaugh went to Michigan. As much as I respect the coaches in the league, I mean, Jim Tomsula?”
Esiason continued, “All we crave is stability, consistency and a roadmap to victory that we can count on. And when you have a guy that tells you, ‘I don’t care about nothing but three hours on Sunday,’ you got problems. Because it’s not just about those three hours on Sunday, it’s about everything leading up to it.
“And, hopefully, that’s the kind of wisdom that Chip Kelly can impart, assuming he’s got his emotional intelligence back in order again so he can communicate it to Colin.”
Of course, there are no guarantees Kelly will want to retain Kaepernick to compete to be his quarterback. That is how far Kaepernick has fallen. And it would be misleading to suggest Kaepernick’s descent is solely attached to the 49ers' change in coaching.
But even while Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman were around, Kaepernick took incremental steps backward after bursting onto the scene in 2012 and quickly becoming an NFL sensation. Kaepernick posted his best completion percentage, yards-per-attempt average and passer rating in his first half-season as the starter.
“Just think of that San Francisco 49ers football team,” Simms said. “It was the best-looking team I’d ever seen in person since I’ve been doing this. There were so many people at the peaks of their careers.
“Look at it now. Look at the team now. You don’t even recognize it. That had a lot to do with it. But, Colin Kaepernick, some of it’s his fault, too. You got to learn to adapt in the NFL, and maybe he hasn’t done his part to fulfill his end of it.”
Images courtesy USA Today Sports Images and AP Images