Colin Kaepernick's dynamic running and passing skills make the 49ers a top Super Bowl contender, and it is staggering to think what the quarterback might accomplish over his first full season.

Jerry Rice is excited. He also is worried.

The 49ers utilize the "zone read option" as a major part of their offense, a strategy that deliberately asks Kaepernick to flee from the relative safety of the pocket.

"I'm a little scared because that read-option is going to expose him a little bit," said Rice, the Hall of Famer. "If he doesn't have anybody open down field, the first thing Kaepernick is going to do is run.

"Only one hit and he's out of the ballgame. It only takes one good shot."

So begins a season in which Kaepernick will leave fans breathless in more ways than one. He will draw gasps for his long runs -- and for every time he is in jeopardy of taking a dangerous hit.

The read-option, common in college, calls for the quarterback to make a quick decision about whether to give up the ball off or keep it for himself depending on how the edge defender reacts.

Washington's Robert Griffin III (815 rushing yards), Carolina's Cam Newton (741), Seattle's Russell Wilson (489) and Kaepernick (415) were among the quarterbacks last year to run the play to great effect.

Their teams went a combined 39-24-1; only Newton failed to make the playoffs.


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In the wake of that success, defensive coordinators spent a sleepless offseason trying to figure out how to stop the read-option.

This season, quarterbacks such as Kaepernick might find themselves running for cover.

"The style in which they play concerns me because I'm not accustomed to seeing quarterbacks take the kind of hits and as many hits as these men take," said Jon Gruden, the former coach now with ESPN.

The 49ers unleashed their dual threat last season when Kaepernick blazed through underprepared defenses (see Packers, Green Bay). In reaction, coordinators across the NFL devoted their summer to developing a counterpunch. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is so confident of corrective measure that he all but pronounced the read-option dead at the league meetings in March.

"I understand that that's the flavor of the month," Tomlin said. "We look forward to eliminating it."

If the read-option isn't at least slowed, it won't be from a lack of trying. The Packers, having been embarrassed by Kaepernick's 181 rushing yards, an NFL record for quarterbacks, dispatched their defensive coaches to Texas A&M for a crash course from Kevin Sumlin's staff on how to deal with the read-option.

Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers also met with Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, who had to scheme against Kaepernick's Nevada team while at Hawaii and Utah State.

"This is a year for people who really like X's and O's," longtime Indianapolis Colts executive Bill Polian said. "For football junkies, this is going to be one of the most interesting in a long time."

Defenses have chased around mobile quarterbacks since the leather helmet days. But the read-option is new to this generation of NFL players. While previous running quarterbacks tended to take off mostly on broken plays, Kaepernick and Co. are racing exposed downfield by design.

The complexities vary, but the read-option usually goes like this: The quarterback lines up (usually in the shotgun) and runs the ball while watching for the reaction of a predetermined unblocked defender. Depending on his "read" of the situation, the quarterback can keep the ball or hand it to a running back who has been along for the ride.

It can be maddening for defenders, especially to defensive ends accustomed to attack mode.

"With this, it's the complete opposite," Packers defensive end Clay Matthews recently told ESPN. "You have to sit there and play patty cake with the tackle, making sure the quarterback doesn't escape the pocket."

How to defend the read-option? The long version might include keeping a disciplined defender on the edge, trying to force the action back inside, watching intently for the mesh point between the quarterback and a running back and maybe even bringing a safety down to the line of scrimmage to take on the quarterback. (Chris Brown of Grantland.com wrote an exquisitely detailed strategic breakdown in July.)

Shaun Phillips, a linebacker for the Denver Broncos who has defended Newton, summed things up by saying: "You have to know your responsibility. You have to know, who has the quarterback, who has the running back, who has the pitch man. It's part of football."

There's a quicker way to stop the read-option: Hit the passer hard enough to make a team think twice about putting him in harm's way.

"Every guy I've talked to is going to go after the quarterback," John Madden, the Hall of Fame coach and co-chairman of the NFL's safety committee, told the Los Angeles Times. "That's going to be their answer."

NFL rules stipulate that hitting the quarterback after the ball leaves his hands constitutes unnecessary roughness, as long as the quarterback is either standing still or moving backward.

But that's only when he is acting like a passer. Dean Blandino, the NFL's vice president of officiating, joined NBC's broadcast of the 49ers-Vikings exhibition game to explain the rules for read-option plays.

"The key point is that the quarterback does not get special protections at all times throughout the play," Blandino said on the air. "When he is a passer, that's when he gets the special protections whether it's roughing the passer or defenseless player protection.

"(But on read-option fakes), he is considered a runner at that point. Just like a running back who has the football, defenders can hit him. He is not presenting a passing posture."

That's part of the reason Gruden is wary of the running trend, no matter how much he enjoys watching it. He pointed to the slew of recent $100 million deals for quarterbacks Matt Ryan, Matthew Stafford, Aaron Rodgers, Joe Flacco and Tony Romo.

"Yes, they're talented, but they're healthy," Gruden said. "We already have seen Robert Griffin get injured, unfortunately, and I'm concerned with any quarterback that runs the ball and plays the position recklessly because as far as I know, the quarterback is the only guy that can't play on Sunday if he has a sore passing shoulder."

Rice said he wonders about the blueprint provided by last year's Super Bowl, when the Baltimore Ravens assigned a linebacker to shadow Kaepernick and to administer a lick whenever possible. The so-called "spy" didn't exactly stifle Kaepernick -- he threw for 302 yards and ran for 62 more -- but Rice said the tactic can unsettle an offense over time.

"I think that (strategy) might take off," the NFL's all-time leading receiver said. "I think teams are just going to go after Kaepernick, and they're going to have a spy whose job is just to hit him every time he fakes the read-option."

Another factor in Kaepernick's safety is the way the 49ers use him. Polian, the six-time NFL executive of the year, credited coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman for knowing how to pick their spots for maximum effect.

"The 49ers have a sound, solid offensive system which is not predicated on the read-option," said Polian, now an analyst for ESPN. "As a matter of fact, they run -- I don't want to get into a big technical discussion -- but they run the option differently than Washington does, and it's more in conjunction with what they normally do anyway

"So while defensive coordinators around the league will of course have studied it and be prepared for it and they'll be showing wrinkles that perhaps the Niners didn't see last year, there are only so many things you can do against it."

Staff writer Steve Corkran contributed to this report. Follow Daniel Brown on Twitter at twitter.com/mercbrownie.

sunday's opener
Green Bay at 49ers, 1:25 p.m. Fox

RUNNING THE SHOW
In leading the 49ers to the Super Bowl last season, Colin Kaepernick proved to be one of the most explosive running quarterbacks in the league. However, he has plenty of company. Here's a look at the top running quarterbacks during the 2012 season:
Quarterback Team Rushes Yards (Rank*) Yds/A TD
Robert Griffin III Redskins 120 815 (20) 6.8 7
Cam Newton Panthers 127 741 (24) 5.8 8
Russell Wilson Seahawks 94 489 (35) 5.2 4
Colin Kaepernick 49ers 63 415 (42) 6.6 5
Michael Vick Eagles 62 332 (56) 5.4 1
* -- NFL rank among all positions SOURCE: ESPN.COM