Here is a link to my Tuesday column about Colin Kaerpernick. The full text runs below:


Study that number. Think about that number. Memorize that number.

It’s the number that matters most with Colin Kaepernick. It is not his pass-completion percentage or his passer rating or his total touchdowns. It is more humble and more basic and way more important.

It is Kaepernick’s age. Twenty-seven.

We tend to think of Kaepernick as a kid or “The Kid.” We think of him as a great natural athlete, a force of nature, really. When we accord him kid status, we also think of him as a beginner, a neophyte, someone in the learning stage of his profession. But he is no beginner and to think of him that way is incorrect. Kaepernick is no longer The Kid.

Joe Montana won a Super Bowl before he was 27. Sure, it was a different era and a different 49ers team. But it’s fair to talk about results and it’s fair to talk about age. When a man is 27, he is a grownup, fully-formed, capable of great things in life, in marriage, in war.

The English Romantic poet John Keats died at 25. He had written “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “Ode to a Nightingale” and “Ode on Melancholy.” They are among the greatest poems in English.

Where is Kaepernick’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn?”

He is a good quarterback who is not a great quarterback. He has not written a masterpiece. He cannot carry a team. We are spoiled around here. We had two quarterbacks who carried teams — Montana and Steve Young.

At Monday’s news conference, I asked Jim Harbaugh what it will take for Kaepernick to become an elite quarterback. Embedded in the question was the implication — intended on my part, received on Harbaugh’s part — that Kaepernick is not an elite quarterback.

Here’s the dialog:

Cohn: I have a question for you. I don’t expect you to answer this one but let’s give it a shot.

Harbaugh: OK.

Cohn: In what ways does Colin Kaepernick need to improve to become an elite NFL quarterback?

Harbaugh: I know a lot of people stress about that.

Cohn: I’m not stressed.

Harbaugh: OK.

Cohn: I’m just inquiring.

Harbaugh with a broad grin: A lot of people inquire about that. Some pontificate on the subject. For us, we’re living in the moment. That’s the great thing about being human beings. You’re always in the moment and, for us, that’s preparing to play the Washington Redskins. That’s trying to improve, build build build our football team and get stronger in all areas. That’s what we concern ourselves with.

Cohn: I’ve had a lot of people not answer questions of mine but that was one of the best you just did. It was clever and philosophical.

Harbaugh: I have a hard time even spelling philosophical. I wasn’t trying to be that. I was just being honest.

I appreciated the banter with Harbaugh. He’s increasingly delightful. But he didn’t answer my question, so I’ll answer it myself.

Kaepernick is not a top-tier quarterback. He possesses incredible physical gifts which tease NFL quarterback coaches and coordinators and head coaches into thinking he will become one. Whether he will become top tier is at issue right now. He is 27 and engrained in his current mechanics and mindset. And it may be too late to change.

He can throw with velocity and he can throw from several arm slots. Good. He can throw off-balance or moving to his left or right. Good. But, he can be scatter-armed even when he’s uncontested. This is part of his mystery. Not a good mystery.

He has one-in-a-million improvisational skills and the ability to extend a play with his feet. But, he lacks pocket presence and can be painfully unaware of pressure. His mental clock reminding him to get rid of the ball doesn’t tick tock like it should. And he’s only so-so at handling pressure.

A quarterbacks coach could improve his ability to read a defense and go through his progressions. But learning advanced quarterbacking would take effort on Kaepernick’s part. Does he make the effort?

He may not be interested. He may suffer from Randall Cunningham Syndrome. If you don’t remember Cunningham, call it Michael Vick Syndrome. Like Kaepernick, Cunningham and Vick were great athletes. They depended on sheer athletic ability instead of learning the ABCs of their craft.

It is possible Kaepernick will rely on his majestic athletic ability until his skills erode with age. Then it will be too late. Then it will be very sad.

Let me pause for a caution. I am not saying Kaepernick cannot learn or will not learn. I am saying he hasn’t learned. But he has hope and he can find that hope in 49ers’ history.

Steve Young.

Young did not become the 49ers starter until he was going on 30. He improved dramatically at an advanced football age under Bill Walsh. He had worked with Sid Gillman at the L.A. Express — Gillman was the precursor to Bill Walsh, a genius. Even so, Young basically was a halfback playing quarterback when he came to the 49ers. He was strictly a one-read-and-then-run-like-hell guy — what Kaepernick is now.

Young was determined to be great. And he made himself great. He stopped being a running quarterback and became a complete quarterback. That means Kaepernick has hope if he applies himself very soon.

I know what you’re wondering. If Kaepernick is not an elite quarterback, who is?

Fair question. Here is my unscientific list:

Aaron Rodgers is in a class by himself.

Just below Rodgers are the usual suspects — Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger.

Ascending to the second level is Andrew Luck.

On the cusp of ascending to the second level is Matt Ryan.

The jury still is out on Andy Dalton and Russell Wilson.

Notice who doesn’t make the list. Kaepernick.

Notice something else, and it’s all about the numbers. Twenty-seven quickly becomes 28, and the learning window closes, and a quarterback is what he is, assets and flaws.

Colin Kaepernick should do the math.

For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at