San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick is coming off one of the most impressive seasons by a first-year starter in recent time. He helped lead the 49ers to the Super Bowl, where he unfortunately came up short, and made plenty of "wow" throws on the road to the championship game.
His development as a passer is one of the greatest transformations I've seen at the quarterback position because at Nevada, he was essentially a novice to the position.
He started at Nevada for multiple years but worked in an offense that relied heavily on option runs and basic passing concepts, which didn't prepare him for the NFL. Now with the 49ers, Kaepernick has combined his natural talents with the teachings of his coaches. He still has a lot of room to grow, however, which was obvious in his Super Bowl performance.
During the big game, Kaepernick made some mistakes as a passer, which can be used as constructive criticism and opportunities for teaching. One play that stood out was his lone interception, which he threw in the direction of veteran receiver Randy Moss.
Moss worked the middle of the field on his route, a deep dig that was designed to attack the soft spot in between the linebackers and safeties. An underneath square-in route by another receiver would attract the attention of the linebackers, ideally opening up Moss for an easy catch.
Although the combination of the routes worked as designed, the throw didn't. Kaepernick, who worked out of the pistol formation, threw the football over the head of the linebackers and of Moss, his intended target. The ball landed into the hands of the incredibly instinctive and omnipresent Ed Reed, who registered his record-tying ninth career postseason interception.
After the play, commentator and former New York Giants quarterback Phil Simms noted that the 49ers quarterback was trying to throw the football too hard, leading to the overthrow when he put velocity on the football. This is an issue that he's had multiple times this postseason, including against the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC championship when he missed his tight ends over the middle a couple of times.
Another visible issue of the rawness of Kaepernick as a passer was his footwork. It should be noted that he's come far in this area of his game, but there are still things that he tends to do that lead to inaccuracy.
When a quarterback's back foot hits the ground on his final step of a drop, the quarterback should bounce forward to balance himself, step with his lead foot in the direction of his target, rotate his hips and then release the football. What this does is shoot power from the foot up through the thigh and upper body before going through the arm.
Where the second-year passer sometimes has hiccups with this motion is when it comes to stepping through and rotating his hips. He does not step consistently through the throw, rather simply planting his foot in the ground. This makes it hard to generate the lower body power and rotate the hips.
The failure to execute that motion leads to most of the weight leaning backward instead of forward, which affects the accuracy of the throw.
The third and final issue that I noticed was his lack of trust in what he's seeing and simply leaving plays out on the field.
There were multiple instances where he was either unsure of what he was seeing or simply did not believe what he was seeing. It sounds a bit odd for an NFL starting quarterback, but it's frequent among young signal-callers because they haven't seen all the exotic schemes from defenses.
In defense of Kaepernick, the Ravens did a good job of masking their intentions and rotating their coverages late to create uncertainty in his mind.
They would force him to audible multiple times at the line of scrimmage, giving him less time to properly scan the defense with his assigned keys and be physical with his receivers, leading him to question whether he should throw the ball or not. This will be improved on as he gains more experience, but what he cannot do is leave plays out on the field, especially potential touchdowns.
An example of the former came in the final offensive drive by the 49ers. He was in traditional shotgun set with a trips set (three pass-catchers) to his right. One of them, wide receiver Michael Crabtree, would run a flat route while another, tight end Vernon Davis, ran a corner route. They were a part of the sprint right-option pass concept, featuring Kaepernick rolling out to his right as he went through his progression.
The problem with his reading of his progression is that he went through them too quickly. His first read, Crabtree, ran into the flat and turned his head around, but Kaepernick was already looking at Davis, his second read. When Crabtree had his head turned around, Kaepernick should have thrown the ball because his receiver was open and had enough real estate to work with to potentially score.
When Kaepernick realized that Davis wasn't going to get open, he went back to Crabtree, but it was too late. Crabtree was now covered tightly by Corey Graham, and the pass fell incomplete after the receiver was contacted.
One of the impressive things about Colin Kaepernick's first season was how far he came along as a passer. He benefited from the offense being geared towards his strengths (which quarterback doesn't?), but he also made many strides as a passer.
However, if the 49ers are going to win the Super Bowl next year, he's going to have to make additional strides in his technique, footwork and decision-making.
Judging by his development thus far, the odds of him improving appear to be quite good.
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