That's the question I posed on Twitter a few days ago to see if NFL fans preferred a traditional quarterback or a dual-threat playmaker. As expected, the reaction was mixed, based on team allegiances. But the debate led me to take a closer look at both quarterbacks to determine which guy is the superior player now, and which will be the better player down the road.
After digging through the tape, here's my take on two of the game's future stars at the quarterback position:
Luck surprised observers with his spectacular performance at the 2012 NFL Scouting Combine. He clocked a 4.67-second 40-yard dash while also posting impressive numbers in the three-cone drill (6.80), short shuttle (4.28), vertical jump (36 inches) and broad jump (10-foot-4). Those measurements rivaled the numbers that uber-athlete Cam Newton put up at the combine the year before, which speaks to Luck's underrated speed, agility and burst.
On the field, Luck's athleticism stands out as he operates in the pocket. He nimbly avoids oncoming rushers while also displaying the footwork and quickness to escape through creases up the middle. Now, Luck isn't an explosive runner in the open field, but he is crafty enough to move the chains and extend drives with his legs, à la Aaron Rodgers.
Kaepernick is one of the most explosive athletes among today's crop of NFL quarterbacks. He is a gifted runner with a long, rangy stride that masks his exceptional speed and acceleration. Kaepernick's ability to run away from defenders in the open field makes him a threat to score from anywhere on the gridiron. The 49ers have taken advantage of these skills by frequently using him on zone-read option plays or predetermined quarterback runs, giving him big-play opportunities on the perimeter.
As a drop-back passer, Kaepernick has remarkable athleticism that allows him to make plays from the pocket. It might seem that Kaepernick's explosive running skills would tempt him to run at every opportunity. However, he uses his elusiveness not to take off, but to avoid rushers before delivering precise strikes down the field. Factor in Kaepernick's ability to throw accurately on the run, and it is easy to see why defensive coordinators are having a tough time coming up with an effective plan for neutralizing his unique game.
Luck is a gifted passer with every tool in the bag. He displays outstanding arm strength and can make every throw with exceptional zip and velocity. He can also throw with touch to all areas of the field. Whether he's tossing soft screen passes or teardrops down the sideline, Luck understands how to change speed and trajectory on his passes to hit receivers in rhythm. For a young quarterback with only one year of pro experience, Luck clearly boasts advanced passing skills and superb arm talent.
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Another area in which Luck shines as a passer: accuracy/ball placement. Now, some will take umbrage with that assessment, based on his modest completion percentage (54.1), but my judgment is based off of what I've seen: Luck routinely makes pinpoint throws into small windows at varying distances. Playing with a cast of mostly young and inexperienced pass-catchers, Luck rarely enjoyed the benefit of throwing to a target with significant separation from the defender last season. This forced him to become extremely precise with his ball placement.
Kaepernick is a strong-armed passer with exceptional natural ability. He rates off the charts in terms of arm strength, zip and velocity. This certainly is not surprising, based on his baseball background -- as a pitcher with a 90-plus mph fastball, Kaepernick was drafted out of high school by the Chicago Cubs -- but his passing prowess is routinely overshadowed by his athleticism and impressive running skills. A close look at the tape reveals a passer with a first-rate arm.
Kaepernick can make every throw required in the pro game with relative ease. While some scouts are bothered by his unorthodox throwing motion, it is hard to dispute the results while watching him fire missiles on short and intermediate routes. Kaepernick's ball speed places him among the hardest throwers in the NFL, and he regularly fits the ball into tight windows. Kaepernick constantly hits the receiver's strike zone in stride, leading to valuable yards after the catch. With accuracy, touch and ball placement valued at a premium, Kaepernick's ability to consistently put the ball in the receiver's chest is one of the traits that separate him from many peers at the position.
There is no doubt about Luck's ability to thrive from the pocket. Scouts touted him as the most polished quarterback to enter the NFL since Peyton Manning, and his production last season did little to dispute that notion. Luck shattered the rookie record for passing yards while displaying exceptional poise and composure from the pocket. Hit unmercifully behind a leaky offensive line (41 sacks), Luck refused to flinch and repeatedly delivered accurate strikes under duress. Now, there is no disputing the fact that Luck's numbers were greatly affected by the constant pressure and harassment. He registered 23 turnovers as a rookie (18 interceptions and five lost fumbles), primarily due to defenders crashing the pocket.
When sufficiently protected, Luck can carve up a defense with surgical precision. He will work every area of the field to stretch the defense horizontally, while also taking enough shots down the field to keep defenders from squatting on short and intermediate routes. Additionally, Luck will relentlessly work between the hashes to take advantage of favorable matchups against linebackers in space -- a tactic that is habitually utilized by savvy veterans. The fact that Luck has already adopted it speaks volumes about his maturity as a pocket passer.
Kaepernick is a strong pocket passer, despite the perception that he is strictly a zone-read playmaker. He operates efficiently in a quick-rhythm passing game that features three-, five- and seven-step drops (or one-, three- and five-step drops from the shotgun). Reviewing the coaches film, I was amazed at his efficiency and effectiveness when directing the 49ers' passing game. Kaepernick frequently released the ball on time at the top of his drop, allowing the offense to develop a rhythm. Additionally, he works all areas of the field to keep opponents from suffocating the passing game with tight coverage on the perimeter. From delivering accurate strikes to Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham on intermediate routes outside the numbers to launching deep balls to Randy Moss, Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker, Kaepernick fully strained opposing defenses last season. The second-year man took the reins from Alex Smith in Week 10 -- after Smith was knocked out of a game against the St. Louis Rams with a concussion -- and there is no question the 49ers' offense was more dynamic and explosive with Kaepernick at the helm.
The numbers validate Kaepernick's efficiency from the pocket. He compiled a passer rating of 98.3 on the strength of a 62.4 completion percentage and a 10:3 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Most importantly, Kaepernick averaged 8.32 yards per pass attempt, which led all starting quarterbacks in the NFL. Sure, that number is slightly inflated -- due to numerous play-action passes completed off of subtle zone-read action in the backfield -- but it is indicative of his ability to push the ball down the field with accurate throws.
Game management is an overlooked aspect of quarterback play, but the great ones understand how to navigate various circumstances to keep the offense on schedule. From delivering pinpoint passes to closely guarded receivers in the red zone to scrambling for critical first downs, winning quarterbacks do whatever it takes to keep the chains moving.
Luck possesses an exceptionally high football IQ. He not only understands how to break down coverage quickly on the move, but he displays an innate awareness of what needs to be done to keep the offense rolling. He simply makes the right play at the right time.
If I had to nitpick Luck's game, I would point to his high turnover total as a concern. In the NFL, the winner of the takeaway battle typically wins the game, so Luck's tendency to give the ball away can place the Colts behind the eight ball. Now, I know some of those turnovers were registered during failed comeback attempts, but his 18 interceptions were the third-most in the NFL (tied with Mark Sanchez).
Kaepernick, meanwhile, is a superb game manager who can match his playmaking skills with an underrated football IQ. He adroitly directs the game from the line of scrimmage by identifying the defensive front during the pre-snap phase and getting the 49ers in the correct play call. This was not only apparent in watching the 49ers' passing game; he also made various pre-snap calls to get the team in the ideal running play. The 49ers seemingly utilized a "check with me" system at the line, which allowed the quarterback to make the play call based on the numerical advantage at the point of attack.
Kaepernick also shows impressive management skills as a playmaker from the pocket. While most explosive athletes quickly look to flee the pocket at the first sign of trouble, Kaepernick utilizes his running skills to buy more time for his receivers to uncover down the field. This has led to several big plays for the 49ers in the passing game while also resulting in a number of first downs on impromptu quarterback runs. And Kaepernick has a sterling track record of ball security, with just nine total turnovers in 10 career starts (including the playoffs).
A quarterback's greatness is measured by his performance in critical situations. Elite signal-callers thrive when the game is on their shoulders, particularly down the stretch of the regular season and in the playoffs. Luck has already displayed the confidence, poise and composure to excel in those situations, despite his inexperience. Last season, he directed seven game-winning drives, including four fourth-quarter comebacks, in helping transform a 2-14 team into a playoff participant as a first-year starter.
What was remarkable about Luck's performance in critical situations was the fact that he played with a green receiving corps (outside of Reggie Wayne, of course) and a leaky offensive line. This put an inordinate amount of stress on him to perform exceptionally well. Luck made pinpoint throws to closely guarded receivers in crunch time, also contributing a few nifty scrambles to sustain drives with mere moments left on the clock. The neophyte found a way to win, showcasing improvisational skills as a playmaker from the pocket. Those attributes are indicative of a championship-caliber quarterback with the potential to lead his team to greater things in the near future.
Now, I must express some concern about Luck's declining play over the final month of the season. While the Colts won four of their final five regular-season games, the rookie standout failed to record a completion percentage greater than 50 in any of those contests. Additionally, he surpassed 200 passing yards just twice in that span. Although numbers only reveal a small part of the equation, the fact that Luck didn't perform at his best down the stretch deserves mention.
Kaepernick also exhibits exceptional ability as a clutch performer. He jumped into a difficult situation, replacing a solid starting quarterback on a championship-caliber team, but didn't wilt under the pressure. Kaepernick put together a remarkable Super Bowl run that showcased his immense talent as a dual-threat playmaker in the backfield. From his brilliant execution of the zone-read option from the Pistol formation to his exceptional performance as a pocket passer, Kaepernick displayed a remarkable knack for delivering on the big stage.
Kaepernick rushed for an NFL quarterback-record 181 yards against the Green Bay Packers in the divisional round of the playoffs, and followed that up with a pair of standout passing games against the Atlanta Falcons and Baltimore Ravens. The latter two games featured impressive comebacks, showcasing his ability to take his game to another level when necessary. Given the importance scouts and coaches place on postseason performance, Kaepernick is already on the cusp of joining the game's elite.
Debate: Go-to quarterbacks
This is unquestionably the most difficult debate I've encountered since starting this "Who's Better?" series of columns. I reached out to several scouts and executives for their input on this matter and most preferred Luck in the long term, with the thinking that a traditional quarterback can better maintain a high level of play when physical tools begin to diminish. However, I believe Kaepernick is the face of the future at the position, and I would confidently tap him to lead my franchise over the next 10 years.
With more collegiate principles making their way to the NFL game, I would opt for the more explosive athlete with extraordinary passing skills. While I certainly believe Luck is a great player with a diverse set of skills that allows him to fit into any offensive system, there is something special about Kaepernick's game that will change the way the position is played in the future. Time will tell on this debate, but I'm casting my lot with the dynamic player with an impressive regular season/postseason résumé.