GREEN BAY — Nine months ago, the Green Bay Packers didn't lay a finger on Colin Kaepernick. Now, they're talking about how important it is to hit the San Francisco 49ers quarterback whenever he runs a read-option play — whether he keeps the ball or gets rid of it.
And that has 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh talking to NFL officials and suggesting that the Packers are out to get his guy.
It all started with an interview on ESPN Radio's Mike & Mike
on Monday morning, when Packers outside linebacker Clay Matthews said that when Kaepernick carries out fakes on read-option plays, the Packers "have to take your shots on the quarterback."
By Wednesday, Harbaugh was seeing what he could do to prevent that.
According to Matthews, when NFL referee Bill Vinovich and his crew came to Green Bay during the first week of training camp, he and the Packers' coaching staff talked at length with the officials about what is and is not legal as far as hitting the quarterback on read-option plays. The Packers' inability to handle read-option plays was a huge issue in the 49ers' 45-31 victory in the NFC Divisional Playoffs, when Kaepernick ran for an astonishing 181 yards. According to ESPN Stats & Information, 178 of those 181 yards came before contact, meaning the Packers never even touched him.
"One of the things that the referees have told us is that when these quarterbacks carry out the fakes, they lose their right as a quarterback, a pocket-passing quarterback, the protection of a quarterback," Matthews told Mike & Mike
. "So with that, you do have to take your shots on the quarterback, and obviously they're too important to their offense.
"If that means they pull them out of that type of offense and make them run a traditional, drop-back, pocket-style offense, I think that's exactly what we're going for. So you want to put hits as early and often on the quarterback and make them uncomfortable."
"I can tell you right now, we started from Day 1 in OTAs when we came back in the offseason working on this read-option, pistol, fake offense for lack of a better term. We've been working on it, especially after what we saw last year in the playoffs specifically and then opening up the season with two of these quarterbacks. We're ready. We feel good about it."
Those comments prompted Harbaugh to go on the offensive and even invoke images of the New Orleans Saints' bounty scandal by suggesting the Packers are "targeting" Kaepernick.
"We're still doing some talking there to fully understand what they're saying," Harbaugh said in his press conference Wednesday
. "I think there's a bit of a gray area.
"My opinion is when a quarterback, before he is declared being a runner, he should be afforded protection that all quarterbacks are afforded until he declares and gets out of the pocket and starts running with the ball or running the option or carrying out a bootleg and attempting a run or a pass when he's outside the pocket. I believe when he's in the pocket he's a quarterback until he declares he's a runner. Those are the conversations right now. We haven't gotten a final clarification on what it's going to be."
Asked about Matthews' comments, Harbaugh said he would talk with the referees before the game.
"You're hearing a lot of tough talk right now, intimidating type of talk, the kind of things, the same thing we were hearing a couple of years ago," Harbaugh said during his press conference Wednesday. "It sounds a lot like targeting a specific player. You definitely start to wonder.
"A man will usually tell you his bad intentions if you just listen (to) what's being discussed publicly. What's being said publicly (will tell you) what's being said privately. You hope that their intent is not going to be anything that's not within the rules."
Asked on his conference call with Wisconsin reporters about the idea that the Packers will try to hit him early and often, Kaepernick did a verbal shrug.
"I wear a helmet and shoulder pads like everyone else," Kaepernick said. "It's for a reason."