Does the most dynamic quarterback in the NFL today need to tone down his game?
It is not often that a team asks its star player to tone down his approach, but with the way quarterback Colin Kaepernick plays the game, the San Francisco 49ers may want to consider their options for the future.
In a nutshell, his skills are the epitome of risk/reward, given the inherent dangers yet astronomical upside of his athletic talent.
In an effort to safeguard its most prized asset, there is a belief that, down the road, the 49ers should look to inhibit a dimension of Kaepernick’s game by keeping him in the pocket when possible.
At its foundation, this argument originated from the quarterback’s ability to master the position from the pocket. It is easy for pundits to disregard the fact that he is a gunslinger with a franchise-caliber arm because his rare athleticism often overshadows his throwing ability.
However, Kaepernick can accurately make every single NFL throw with piercing velocity or delicate touch.
He may be the most dynamic quarterback in the NFL. His arm is not good, it’s special. If you watch the San Francisco 49ers ever since he became quarterback, you see these throws every single week. It’s not only the power, it’s the accuracy. That’s what has really startled me. He can throw it hard on a line, but his touch passes down the field have been spectacular … Forget the running, that arm alone is enough to make you a franchise quarterback.
The principal case against Kaepernick as a runner is that he has top-five arm talent. It is certainly a dilemma the 49ers coaching staff will have to consider, and one that may be the first of its kind.
Overall, the 25-year-old sensation appears to have a promising future, but as far as safety goes, the ‘Niners must examine the risk/reward of allowing him to run. Since Kaepernick can beat teams from the pocket, does San Francisco hold him there, keep the running to a minimum or let him play his game?
The following will dissect the most prevalent issue regarding Colin Kaepernick’s future in the NFL.
In terms of mobility, measurables and style, he is most akin to Randall Cunningham, over, say, Michael Vick. Kaepernick and Cunningham both listed at a lean 6’4”, except the 49ers QB carries an extra 15 pounds on his frame (230 lbs.).
As a shorter, more nimble runner, Vick weighs in at 215 lbs. and is an even 6’0”.
With their comparable stride and agility, Kaepernick’s panache as a sprinter is most commonly equated to Cunningham, who was an influential figure in the wave of running quarterbacks in the late-1980s to mid-1990s, via CSN Baltimore.
When he finally hung up his pads, Cunningham had 4,928 rushing yards and 35 rushing touchdowns to his name. His 6.4 yards per attempt were the third-best in NFL history behind Michael Vick (1) and Bobby Douglass (2).
As elusive runners with big-play ability—and "Gumby-like" body types—both Kaepernick and Cunningham demonstrated an ability to bend at the point of contact, absorbing the opposing players momentum and making them difficult to tackle.
They also showed an ability to function as dangerous weapons in open space.
Slicing and dicing defenses with their legs, they proved to be legitimate scoring threats. The duality of their offensive play has also allowed them to extend the plays with their cannon-like arms.
And Kaepernick does have a powerful, powerful arm.
With just a flick of the wrist, the ball soars downfield with dazzling touch and pinpoint accuracy. This is advantageous for a passer that can give his receivers extra time to get downfield. Although, there is certainly a downside to all of that running around and ad-libbing at the pro level.
According to Scott Kacsmar at Pro Football Reference, Cunningham’s sack rate was at its highest when he was in Philadelphia—coincidentally when he was at the pinnacle of his rushing career. He also happens to be the fourth-most-sacked quarterback in league history (484), which can lead to injuries.
Cunningham was known as one of the highest ceiling quarterbacks ever, possessing all of the physical tools. But he was never able to put it together at the same time.
If Cunningham had been able to combine his prolific career as a runner in Philadelphia (1985-1995) with one of the all-time great passing seasons he had with the 1998 Minnesota Vikings and sustain that over a 10-year period, he might have been considered one of the all-time greats.
This is essentially what Kaepernick is: the answer to the “What if?” question surrounding Cunningham’s NFL career.
According to Daniel Brown of the San Jose Mercury News, Kaepernick was aware of the similarities and had studied Cunningham’s game film during his developmental years. And as we can see on Sundays, it has influenced the young NFL star.
As a bona fide fan, Cunningham thinks highly of Kaepernick:
The thing that's beautiful to me is that these guys now, like Kaepernick, they have the ability to move. It's not just that they can run. They're really good at sensing pressure and moving out of the pocket. It's like almost everybody has that ability now—it's been coming for some time. But what's really refreshing is that so many of these young guys also have the right character—they have the attributes of a [Tom] Brady or a Peyton Manning.
The framework for mobile quarterbacks set forth by Cunningham made it possible for Kaepernick to field a new and improved model over a decade later. Now under the wing of head coach Jim Harbaugh, he has the potential to see his ceiling in San Francisco.
But to do that, Kaepernick will have to both run and pass or his unique design will lose its potency. More so, he would not be the all-purpose weapon that he was originally drafted to be.
Designed Runs vs. Scrambling
“To play wide-open football with the exposure of a quarterback on the perimeter, as a runner, more movements, the risk for injury definitely goes up. That is just my opinion,” – Mike McCarthy, Green Bay Packers
When breaking down the ways the 49ers can potentially regulate him, it boils down to designed runs versus scrambling.
By scheming designed runs for their quarterback, the 49ers increase their risk by putting him out in the open field. Whether it is read-option work or designed sweeps, they open up their quarterback to the big hit.
Though the advantage of the read-option is that it is an improvisational play that allows Kaepernick to decide whether he has a lane or not. If he deems his gap unsafe, he can hand the ball to the tailback or drop back to pass.
However, the 49ers are still left holding their breath every time he takes a keeper.
On the perimeter, Kaepernick is vulnerable to sideline-to-sideline linebackers and athletic defensive ends that have a full head of steam. Not to mention the downhill safeties—a position group which has a few of the hardest hitters in the league.
There is definitely a clear danger zone unless Kap can get behind the defense, which won’t always be the case. From the 53 yards sideline to sideline and the first 10-15 yards from the line of scrimmage, there is roughly a 4,800-square-foot area where the quarterback is at maximum risk.
This is dicey for Kaepernick if he is unable to get out of bounds cleanly or emerge from the other end of the tackle box unscathed.
More often than not, the designed runs are game-planned for specific looks, intended to shred defenses with a low risk of injury to the quarterback due to numerical matchups favoring San Francisco.
While it helps to keep the quarterback clean, the 49ers will not always be successful and when those inevitable hits occur, there is no telling how bad will they be. This is what makes each play a risk.
The other aspect of Kaepernick’s running is the scrambling.
First of all, taking advantage of man coverage is a unique way for Kap to utilize his athleticism. On several occasions, when there were no options downfield, the quarterback was able to use his legs to rip defenses for first downs and more.
In contrast, a pure pocket passer would throw the ball away, take a sack or worse.
For this reason, having a mobile quarterback is extremely advantageous, especially on third downs. Even if he does not take off downfield, Kaepernick can keep the play alive as a scrambler.
Like the mobile quarterbacks before him, Kap is able to buy time with his legs and turn a five-second play into a 15-second play. This is awfully problematic for defensive backs that need to stay disciplined in coverage for longer periods of time.
It wears them down and exhausts the defensive line over the course of a game.
Moreover, there are plenty of opportunities for Kaepernick to do this sort of thing. Nowadays, teams are setup to rush the passer from the outside, and are not equipped to handle this sort of dual-threat.
For this reason, the 49ers can win downs when the defense over-pursues on a blitz or when Kap gets a favorable look to one side or the other. It ultimately makes teams pay for errors, while simultaneously demoralizing their opponents by rendering them powerless.
All in all, the 49ers staff only has so much control. The team can limit designed runs but it cannot feasibly coach the scrambling out of him. Why would they want to anyway, when such a thing would largely be perceived as counterproductive?
Anyone doubt, barring an injury, this is Colin Kaepernick's 49er team as long as he's there?— Art Spander (@artspander) November 26, 2012
A Look at Quarterback Injuries
“I thought he was pretty good, but I don’t think they’re going to be able to run him like that. He takes one good hit, there goes their season.” – Datone Jones, Green Bay Packers
San Francisco may limit Kaepernick for this reason, plain and simple.
As the constant in this study, it is only logical to look at the injury history of Randall Cunningham first. The first and perhaps most notable came in Week 1 of the 1991 season, when Cunningham blew his knee out on a tackle from Packers LB Bryce Paup (MCL, PCL), ending his season, via Sports Illustrated.
Four weeks into the 1993 season, Cunningham received a hit from Jets’ defensive ends Marvin Washington and Scott Mersereau. The play resulted in a broken fibula for the quarterback, and again put No. 12 out for the season, via Beaver County Times.
During his time with the Eagles, Cunningham was twice lost to season-ending injuries. However, both incidents occurred in the pocket. This makes it tough to condemn him as a running QB when those same injuries could have happened to a traditional dropback passer.
The underlying issue with mobile quarterbacks is that, when they leave the pocket, they abandon their best asset by not utilizing the protection of the offensive line. This kind of exposure has pundits worrying fans with scary words like “ACL” and “concussion.”
The truth is, quarterbacks get hurt in the pocket, too. In fact, that’s where the largest defensive players tend to be.
In an attempt to shed some light on the matter, the following presents an assembled list of notable quarterbacks that were injured between 1999-2012. Given the sample size, there are omissions—the list is more of an indiscriminate assemblage of significant QB injuries.
The same applies for Drew Brees with regard to the shoulder injury he sustained in his last game with the San Diego Chargers in 2005. Donovan McNabb being placed on IR that same season with a sports hernia was also left out due to the root of the injury being untraceable.
Here is a look at when, where and how quarterbacks endured substantial injury:
|2012||Robert Griffin III||Redskins||Knee|
Following the rise of Colin Kaepernick and a slew of mobile quarterbacks, a more thorough study was undertaken by Omar Bashir and Chris Oates of Slate.com, entitled “The Running Men.”
The results of their report indicated no significant statistical disparity in injury rates between mobile and conventional quarterbacks from 2002-2012. In fact, three of four tests suggested that mobile quarterbacks have a lower injury rate.
On top of that, after measuring average starts lost due to injury, Bashir and Oates found that sacks in the pocket were the biggest cause of quarterbacks succumbing to significant injury.
After taking a look at the severe injuries suffered by quarterbacks in the past decade, the main anxiety a head coach ought to have about the safety of his quarterback should revolve around the planted knee getting nuked.
The pocket is constantly being attacked by the largest men on the field, who lunge and dive at passers well after the release of the ball. There is nothing scarier than a low, late hit by a defender on a quarterback.
At the other end of the spectrum, you have a pure scrambler like Michael Vick, who may have the most prolific injury history of pro quarterbacks in recent memory. It may also come as a surprise that Vick has only completed one full 16-game season in his entire 10-year career.
Furthermore, going out of one’s way to avoid contact is not always a surefire way to ensure physical safety. At some point, fate comes into play, in the sense that whatever is meant to happen will happen.
As a point of reference, kicker Bill Gramatica ripped his ACL celebrating a made field goal, while receiver Michael Crabtree recently tore his Achilles tendon going in motion at OTAs, per ESPN. It simply goes to show how spontaneous an injury can occur.
The bottom line here is that neither of the two types of quarterback have an edge in terms of injury prevention. So, with that knowledge, does it make sense for the 49ers to regulate Kaepernick given his remarkable skill set?
The Offensive System
When Colin Kaepernick was drafted at No. 36 overall in 2011 by newly hired head coach Jim Harbaugh—a renowned QB guru—it seemed that there was always a plan in place for the college record-holder from Nevada.
He left his fingerprint on the NCAA by becoming the only player in Division I FBS history to surpass 10,000-yards passing and 4,000-yards rushing. It is no surprise that he has already begun to collect rushing records at the pro level, via SportsCenter on Twitter.
This is the type of game he played at Nevada and we’re seeing that it is effective in the NFL.
Moreover, the 49ers have gradually, and purposefully, been developing this offensive system since Harbaugh and Kaepernick both arrived two years ago. This is a preordained methodology that was specifically tailored to Kaepernick.
Is it just by chance that the offense San Francisco is running is largely defined by Chris Ault’s pistol developed around Kap at Nevada, or that Greg Roman trekked up to the college to learn the system from Ault himself?
Furthermore, what is the point of the time spent working on the read-option if the quarterback stops running after one year?
The quarterback has to be a threat to take off with the football. If he barely does it, it will make an entire wrinkle of their offense—perhaps the most dangerous one—less effective than it would have been otherwise.
When he runs, the offense is able to see its full potential, and not just because it adds to the rushing attack. According to Jeff Deeney of Pro Football Focus, it has had a profound effect on play-action, freeing receivers downfield, which should become more apparent in 2013.
The misdirection and sleight of hand that San Francisco employs work simply because Kaepernick is a threat to leave the pocket. It would be difficult for the 49ers to kick all of these advantages to the curb because he might get hurt.
Moreover, the physical ability that San Francisco’s scouting department managed to find is superior to most other offensive stars in the league, and it is a secondary tool for Kaepernick.
According to ESPN’s Sports Science, Kaepernick was clocked at a top speed of 22-plus miles per hour on his 56-yard touchdown run versus the Green Bay Packers in the Divisional Playoffs. This is faster than both Michael Vick and Adrian Peterson.
In the real world, he would not legally be allowed to go that fast in a school zone. Kap also reached 80 percent of his top speed in just four strides, which greatly aids in his ability to escape and improvise.
It makes him a threat like no other quarterback before him.
He has unbelievable pull-away speed, and by conducting the eye test, one could assume that roughly 90 percent of league starters can’t touch him in a foot race. It is difficult to defend that sort of dual threat.
Simply put, Kaepernick is one of San Francisco’s fastest players, and as long as he is under center, it will forever change the way defenses prepare for the 49ers.
Conclusion: Is It Worth It (To Run Him)?
On his concerned over injury risk to Colin Kaepernick running as much as he does, #49ers Jim Harbaugh likened him to a callous on a big toe— Mindi Bach (@MBachCSN) December 10, 2012
To reiterate, the dispute against him as a runner is that he can theoretically be an all-time great quarterback without sacrificing bodily harm. However, the 49ers knew what they were getting when they drafted him—in fact, that is why he was targeted by Jim Harbaugh.
It was Colin Kaepernick’s rare ability and groundbreaking potential that caught the attention of the newly appointed head coach, so it is appropriate to assume that the 49ers intend on using him as an all-purpose weapon.
Admittedly, this will ignite a panicky fan base on game day, particularly for those worried about Kaepernick’s career longevity.
On the plus side, when he is outside the pocket, Kaepernick can turn on the jets to escape larger defenders and get downfield. There is a certain level of risk, but no more than when he is in the pocket, dropping back to pass.
Going forward, Senior Offensive Consultant Eric Mangini and the surrounding staff can teach him how to better protect himself.
Kaepernick needs to learn to slide, step out of bounds, be decisive and generally play safer on the perimeter. He can also throw the ball away if there is not a clear running lane to the sideline.
If he can do these things, he will forever change the way teams play San Francisco.
“I mean, you’ve got an extra running back, essentially, who can throw or run. There are a lot of complications with it. You have to game-plan completely differently for a team like that,” said Defensive Player of the Year, J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans.
On top of the aforementioned advantages, his ability as a dual-threat will slow the pass rush and make opponents hesitate, which will ultimately cause defensive breakdowns on a weekly basis.
If he is restricted to the status of a strict pocket passer, that game-changing ability will no longer be at San Francisco’s disposal.
In closing, NFL.com analyst Bucky Brooks drew up an extensive analysis, comparing a pair of 2012 breakout quarterbacks in No. 1 overall selection Andrew Luck and San Francisco's own second-round gunslinger.
At the end of his study, Brooks concluded that Kaepernick is "the future of the position," saying he would confidently choose him to lead his franchise for 10 years. Brooks believes Kap is a “more explosive athlete with extraordinary passing skills.”
With all this information on injuries, ability, advantages and disadvantages, the question then becomes: Why limit Colin Kaepernick? Maybe he is the real thing—the next legitimate and, perhaps, most prominent dual-threat quarterback in NFL history.
To take a quote from the film, The Express, where Syracuse football coach Ben Schwartzwalder spoke about sensation, Ernie Davis, “Gentlemen, when you have a thoroughbred, you do not lock him in the barn.”
Dylan DeSimone is the San Francisco 49ers' featured columnist for Bleacher Report. A former NFL journalist and fantasy football writer for SB Nation, Niners Nation and SB Nation Bay Area, Dylan now writes for B/R.
To talk football with Dylan, follow him on Twitter @DeSimone80.