How Jim Harbaugh Can Continue to Develop the Colin Kaepernick Offense
When general manager Trent Baalke and head coach Jim Harbaugh decided to draft Colin Kaepernick back in 2011 with the No. 36 pick, we all knew it was only a matter of time before Kaepernick would take over for Mr. mediocrity, Alex Smith.
Yet Harbaugh wasn't ready to hand No. 7 the reins immediately; he wanted to give him time to sit and learn for a year. During the 2011 season, Smith showed that he was more than capable of winning and managing games. He did so well in fact that he won the Ed Block Courage Award for his inspiration, sportsmanship, and courage.
Not to mention he had the best statistical season of his career under Harbaugh's tutelage in 2011. It's also worth mentioning that he was on track in 2012 to yet again surpass all of his personal highs from the previous season. Before getting concussed against the St. Louis Rams, Smith was completing 70.2 percent of his passes, he had a quarterback rating of 104.1 and his 13 touchdown passes had him on pace for a personal best by season's end.
However, Smith's stats instantly became meaningless after Kaepernick stepped in and dominated with his incredible arm strength, blazing speed and precision timing. All three were attributes that helped Kap keep the starting quarterback job despite the former No. 1 overall pick making a full recovery from his concussion in just two short weeks.
Even though Smith was the veteran quarterback who had the "better stats," it didn't matter. Stats have no way of measuring a player's ability and intangibles; they simply are a way to state a case or win an argument. Most head coaches and front office executives don't get caught up in the stats—they let fans and media members worry about the box score.
Which is why Coach Harbaugh knew that Kaepernick was his guy despite Smith's speedy recovery. Harbaugh inherited Smith and he drafted Kap, it's as simple as that. The second-round pick from Nevada was his hand-picked player, so why would he waver on him now?
It was the perfect opportunity for Harbaugh to insert the quarterback he wanted the world to see.
With the insertion of his guy into the lineup came the insertion of the offense that made Kaepernick a collegiate star. The read-option "Pistol" offense was used sparingly in the NFL by coaches like Chan Gailey and Mike Shanahan, although the full-fledged "Pistol" offense didn't make headway until Week 11 (Kaepernick's first official NFL start).
And since its full-fledged arrival, it seems like every other NFL team has tried to find a way to incorporate the offense into their playbook some way or another. The NFL is the ultimate copy-cat league, we all know that, which is why this question always seemingly runs through my head: How can Harbaugh and Kaepernick continuously develop the offense that made the 49ers so successful in 2012?
If we know anything about Harbaugh and his offensive approach, it's far from conventional.
He loves to use a wide variety of formations that often creates mismatches based on the personnel that is in the game. Which in turn means it would be wise to expect him to expand the playbook even more in favor of the "Pistol" offense. More "Pistol" principles would definitely take San Francisco's offense to a whole new level.
A unique wrinkle to the "Pistol" that I found was the Flexbone, more specifically the inside veer out of the Flexbone. The 49ers have the right personnel to easily incorporate this look into their offense. Let's take a look at Art Craig of Timberland High School in South Carolina break down the inside veer attack.
You can see that the unique offensive look has worked well for him at the high school level, but is it feasible to think he would have the same success at the professional level? The simple answer is yes, because the 49ers have the speed to do it. Kaepernick has the ability to run away from defenders when he gets outside the pocket and LaMichael James has the potential to bust a big-gainer any time he touches the ball at any level of the field.
After coming on strong toward the end of the season last year, it would be wise to expect more playing time for James going forward. Kendall Hunter is coming back from serious injury and Frank Gore isn't exactly a spring chicken anymore. He will be 30 at the start of the 2013 season and we all know how well 30-year-old running backs do when they are overused.
In addition to the inside veer play, here are some examples in which the Flexbone "Pistol" offense can be effectively utilized in red-zone situations. As we all know, at times San Francisco had its fair share of red-zone problems throughout the season. A perfect example of those struggles came on the team's last drive against Baltimore in the Super Bowl.
By no means is the Flexbone "Pistol Offense" the only reasonable addition the 49ers can make to the playbook. It just happened to be one of the more intriguing options I found when I plugged the Niners personnel into the particular formation. An offense of this type is predicated on quickness and speed, something San Francisco's backfield has going for itself right now.
However, to continuously stay ahead of the trend, they need to add even more speed and quickness in the offseason. The rotation of offensive players at playmaking positions helps keep the offense running at a high, efficient level. So realistically, it would be wise of Baalke and Harbaugh to add even more talented offensive weapons to Kaepernick's arsenal in the coming months.
I know everyone is concerned about drafting potential defensive line replacements and safety help early on, but at the same time I don't think the 49ers should totally neglect the offensive side of the ball early on in the draft.
Tight end and wide receiver will need to be addressed, with the possible departure of Delanie Walker and Ted Ginn. Not to mention Mario Manningham's injury from last season could possibly throw a wrench into things as well. Not much has been said about how his recovery and how it's coming along.
Greg Roman, Chris Ault (the creator of the "Pistol" offense), and Harbaugh all know that speed kills. Which is why continuing to develop San Francisco's offense will not be hard, they just have to make sure to stick with what Kaepernick knows. He has over five years of experience in the offense, so don't fix what isn't broken.
Give him weapons, expand the playbook and maximize his talent, the same thing San Francisco did last year as the season progressed. If the 49ers do those three things, it wouldn't be too far fetched to think they will be hoisting the Lombardi Trophy for the first time since 1994.
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