When you think of the dreaded sophomore slump, you typically think of rookie quarterbacks who fail to produce in Year 2. In today’s NFL, it’s rare to see a rookie quarterback sit and learn behind a vested veteran. The league has turned into a place where immediate results are expected.
Some organizations need to play a rookie quarterback right away, that’s understandable. But, there are a few teams who still manage to do things the old-fashioned way. The San Francisco 49ers are one of the select few. In 2011, they had enough talent at the quarterback position to put their rookie quarterback on the bench for a year.
I think the biggest thing with Alex is he was always in my ear, making sure I was seeing the defense. Did I see safeties do this? Did I see the rotation? Did I see things like that? [He was] just making sure I have mental clarity when I step on the field.
The praise of Smith should come as no surprise.
While Smith was in San Francisco, he was always a team-first type of player. Plus, he knew Kaepernick was drafted in the second round to be his potential replacement. He just never thought it would come less than a year after he led the 49ers to the NFC Championship Game.
Nevertheless, the switch happened and Kaepernick led San Francisco to the Super Bowl. When the former second-round pick took over Week 10, he went on to amass 2,523 yards through the air and 566 yards on the ground (playoffs included).
Moreover, Kaepernick threw 14 touchdown passes and rushed for six others (playoffs included). In only 10 starts, the analysts at Pro Football Focus (subscription required) graded No. 7 as the 10th-best quarterback in the league, not to mention he finished as PFF’s 10th-best passer and seventh-best runner.
Even though his instant success was unexpected, expectations for Kaepernick and the 49ers are now through the roof heading in 2013. A return trip to the Super Bowl will not be good enough based on the talent of San Francisco’s roster. Bringing home the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the season will be the team’s only option.
Despite being offseason favorites, the road to Super Bowl XLVIII won’t be a walk in the park. The NFC West has quickly become the toughest division in football with the Seattle Seahawks and the St. Louis Rams on the rise.
Let’s not forget the fact that the Green Bay Packers, Atlanta Falcons and Washington Redskins are all considered contenders again in 2013. If the 49ers want to make their Super Bowl run as easy as possible, Kaepernick will have to take his game to a new whole new level by avoiding the abominable sophomore slump.
Technically speaking, Kaepernick will be entering his junior season in the NFL. But as a starting quarterback, he will be entering his sophomore season. Shoot, he won’t have 16 starts under his belt until San Francisco’s Week 6 home contest against the Arizona Cardinals.
While Kaepernick may have some experience, especially in big games, there are still some questions about his game that remain unanswered. The most immediate is whether his playing style and high level of play can be sustained for a second year in a row.
When one takes the time to examine quarterbacks who encompass similar traits, it’s a mixed bag of results from the first year of starting to the second year.
As you can see in the chart above, the most successful mobile quarterback from Year 1 of starting to Year 2 was Steve Young, who improved in every major statistical category. Michael Vick and Cam Newton, on the other hand, all regressed in more than one category.
Vick threw fewer touchdown passes, more interceptions and had a lower quarterback rating in his sophomore year. The only statistical category in which he improved was his completion percentage. Newton’s completion percentage and touchdowns fell off in his second year, while his quarterback rating and interception numbers improved.
Sure, there are now in-depth scouting reports on Kaepernick, but overall it goes well beyond what he does as an individual. Football is still the ultimate team sport, so one has to evaluate the surrounding variables from one year to the next.
In Newton’s case, Carolina’s offensive line was less effective in terms of blocking from Year 1 to Year 2. Additionally, the Panthers’ backfield also rushed for fewer yards in 2012. This, in turn, leads me to believe Newton’s statistical slides were a direct result of poor play around him.
The same can be said about Vick’s transition. Atlanta won more games in No. 7’s second full season as a starter, but the Falcons' wide receivers dropped off considerably, forcing Vick to rely more on his legs.
The most comparable situation to Kaepernick’s would be Young’s. Young flourished in his second full season with the 49ers because the organization placed better players around him. The biggest addition to San Francisco’s roster in 1992 was a healthy Ricky Watters.
Watters was a second-round pick and he rushed for 1,013 yards as in his second year. One year prior, the 49ers leading rusher was Keith Henderson. He only managed to garner 561 yards rushing over the course of 14 games.
This leads me to my next question: Did the 49ers do enough during the offseason to help Kaepernick further develop in 2013?
Let’s take a look.
They added three receiving options and one running back. Anquan Boldin, Quinton Patton and Vance McDonald will all see plenty of snaps in 2013. The only questionable contributor, at this point, is running back Marcus Lattimore. Lattimore is still recovering from a gruesome knee injury he suffered at the University of South Carolina.
Based on what we know and the talent San Francisco added to the offensive side of the ball, there’s no reason to believe Kaepernick’s numbers will slide in 2013. Michael Crabtree's Achilles injury does put a damper on things, but Crabtree alone doesn't make up the 49ers' receiving corp.
They still have plenty of viable pass-catchers on the roster. Vernon Davis, Mario Manningham, Kyle Williams and Boldin have all shown, over the course of their careers, that they can be relied upon when their team needs them the most.
We can all agree that the sophomore slump is indeed real.
However, quarterbacks in the past have proven that not every second-year starter succumbs to a less than impressive sophomore campaign. With general manager Trent Baalke and head coach Jim Harbaugh in control, Kaepernick will prove that he's in good hands moving forward.
Moreover, it doesn't hurt that Kaepernick will take the field every Sunday with a top-notch offensive line and a top-notch backfield.