Rarely has the NFL seen such a myriad of young quarterbacks make their mark as starters relatively early in their careers as we are seeing today. Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick and Andy Dalton all have their respective teams in the postseason hunt through the first 14 weeks of the season.
What has changed?
There are certain situations where a young quarterback is thrust into starting action before he is ready. You San Francisco 49ers fans know this all too well with Alex Smith some eight years ago. The 49ers current backup quarterback was thrown into an unenviable situation without anywhere near a solid supporting cast. The result was one of the worst rookie performances in the history of the league.
More recently, we have seen the likes of Blaine Gabbert and Brandon Weeden struggle in similar scenarios.
Then you have the highly touted top picks, which come in and are expected to start immediately. Luck and RGIII represent that group to a T. They are surrounded by decent talent and have their teams in the thick of contention as rookies.
Kaepernick, however, is in a league of his own right now. He took over for Alex Smith during San Francisco's Week 10 tie against the St. Louis Rams and hasn't looked back. While the second-year quarterback hasn't been perfect, he is 3-1 as a starter heading into the 49ers Sunday Night Football matchup with the New England Patriots in Gillette Stadium.
What makes Kaepernick's situation so interesting is that he took over for a quarterback that had led San Francisco to the NFC Championship Game last season. The rest of the quarterbacks that I mentioned above don't have the same pressure on their shoulders.
The 49ers are averaging 25 points and over 350 yards per game in Kaepernick's last five appearances, going 3-1-1 during that span. It goes without saying that San Francisco's offense has opened up a great deal since Kaepernick took over for the concussed Smith just over a month ago.
What does this mean?
San Francisco boasts the No. 1 scoring defense, it also ranks second in both passing yards and total yards against. That is utter dominance from one of the best overall defensive units in the entire NFL. Imagine how the 49ers would fare if they were able to squeeze a little more production out of what has been a slowly improving offense.
For his part, Kaepernick seems to be doing his job. According to Mike Sando over at ESPN, he has the best overall QBR for a quarterback in his first four NFL starts since 1998. Additionally, the talented columnist goes on to say that Kaepernick's fourth-quarter rating of 99.2 is the best in the entire league since he made his first start in Week 11.
Not only is Kaepernick playing stellar football throughout the game, he is stepping up his performance when it counts in the final stanza. That is a sign of a quarterback ready to make the jump from above-average to near-elite status.
Kaepernick, who has recorded the two longest runs for a quarterback in San Francisco history in the last two weeks, keeps on piling up accolades from around the league and on his own team. Randy Moss had the following to say about the young quarterback:
I think Kap’s been able to come in and just lead us as a whole unit. Anytime a guy can come in and lead like that, and I don’t mean verbally, but leading by example is what we as football players look for in a player. Especially in a quarterback. So I really just compliment his leadership and going out there and leading our offense up and down the field.
That is mighty high praise for a veteran that doesn't usually go out on a limb to show respect for other players, teammates included. While Moss has shown he is a key cog to the 49ers, at least in the locker room, his praise does speak volumes.
Then you have the statistics. Kaepernick has thrown one interception in 129 pass attempts as a first-year starter this season. In total, he has turned the ball over one time every 44 times he touches the ball. That shows a tremendous amount of progression for a player that seemed to have a "deer in the headlights" look during preseason back in August.
Just take a look at the long scoring drives that San Francisco has had under Kaepernick since he became its starting quarterback. You are going to notice something glaring below:
|New Orleans||16||85||9:28||Field Goal|
|St. Louis||13||94||8:13||Field Goal|
With one of the top defenses in the entire league, opposing teams cannot afford the 49ers to have long, time-consuming drives. Kaepernick has led drives of at least 80 yards six times in the last five games with the last three taking up a minimum of nearly a half of quarter.
What makes San Francisco's offense so dangerous under Kaepernick is that it has the ability to drive down the field in a relatively short amount of time as well. In case you didn't notice, two of those drives took four minutes or less.
Long drives can demoralize an opponent and change the momentum of a game in a heartbeat. Equally as important for the 49ers, they force an offense to go 80 yards against one of the best defenses following a score.
We can talk about improved mechanics and decision-making until we are blue in the face. In the end, all that matters for San Francisco is continuing to improve on offense through the remaining three games and putting itself in position to win the Super Bowl.
Statistically speaking, Kaepernick gives the 49ers the best chance to do that. While some might point to a lack of experience as it relates to the young quarterback, he is looking like anything but an inexperienced starter out there.
Kaepernick continues to make the right decisions, goes through his progressions like a veteran, and seems to possess top-shelf accuracy at this point in his young NFL career.
We already know that the young quarterback possesses a ton of natural talent. If he is able to improve in each of the three games remaining on San Francisco's regular season schedule, it is going to be incredibly hard to beat come the postseason.
First things first. San Francisco needs to win tonight in New England to clinch a playoff spot. It also has a tremendous amount of work to do in order to clinch the NFC West and acquire a first-round bye in the playoffs.
Once that happens, we can start taking a deeper look at how Kaepernick's game advanced the 49ers chances of bringing home a sixth Lombardi.
For now, it is all about beating Tom Brady and the Patriots, an enormous task if there ever was one. If Kaepernick can get that signature win on national television against the defending AFC Champions, he will start to get noticed as someone who can lead the 49ers to their ultimate end goal.