Speed. Velocity. Accuracy. All these traits and more have made it abundantly clear that San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick is going to play this game a little differently. Propelling his meteoric rise, the phenom from Turlock, Calif. has relied on a rare set of physical tools unique to him.
He has proudly ridden his gifts to NFL stardom, too.
As Kap told ESPN the magazine, “I don’t want to be that standard image. To me, I don’t want to be that perfect mold, ‘Oh, that is what every quarterback before you has looked like, this is what you’re supposed to look like.’”
Between his look, his defiance and his style of play, he is not the cookie-cutter quarterback that critics want him to be, but that's okay. Truth be told, it is that individuality that has helped him prosper on and off the football field.
As a professional mastering his craft, Kap has defied convention in the same way that Pablo Picasso and Bob Dylan did. And because he knows no other way, the 49ers quarterback will continue to go against the grain of what is considered the norm.
Like an artist, though, Kaepernick is still evolving.
As good as he is now, what haven’t we seen? Between the fastball, the pinpoint accuracy and the ability as a runner, how will his unique set of skills continue to transcend the quarterback position? Here is a preview of how Kaepernick will continue to utilize his one-of-a-kind abilities at the NFL level.
One of the hallmarks of an elite quarterback is the ability to feel pressure in the pocket, keep the eyes downfield and adjust accordingly. This is another feature of the position that Kap is going to do a little differently. When bodies are flying and the integrity of the pocket has been compromised, he can intuitively relocate, extend the play outside the hashes or bolt downfield.
The improvisational skills he displayed reacting to pressure, along with the catalog of options he has as a dual-threat sets him apart.
In 2012, Kap exhibited a knack for escaping like no other QB in the league. This is only going to become more problematic for his opposition as he establishes a comfort level and hastens his decision-making. At 6’4", 230 pounds, he is slippery and speedy, which is a rare grouping of traits in an elite passer.
Under duress in the pocket, Kap can be seen bobbing, weaving and athletically outshining the defenders pursuing him. It is demoralizing to linemen and linebackers when they miss him, as well as cornerbacks and safeties when he smokes them in footraces.
Physically, he is equipped to feel and avoid pressure as well as anyone.
As a testament to his speed, ESPN’s Sports Science clocked Kaepernick at 22-plus miles per hour on his 53-yard score against the Packers in the NFC Divisional Playoffs. The calculations also revealed that he reaches 80 percent of his top speed in only four strides, so the acceleration is there.
His movements are very sudden and he can leave the pocket in a hurry.
When removing kneel downs and fumbled snaps, which count for one rush for zero yards, the 49ers quarterback had 73 runs for 691 yards in 2012 (9.47 YPA), per Scott Kacsmar of Cold Hard Football Facts. Now here is the important part: Jeff Deeney of Pro Football Focus added that Kaepernick also averaged 10.1 yards per carry on scrambles (35 runs for 352 yards).
As you can see, half of his runs in 16 appearances last year were not by design, and, in fact, netted a higher average than ones carefully drawn up by offensive coordinator Greg Roman. His runs—designed or otherwise—were also substantially more proficient than Robert Griffin III (6.7), Cam Newton (5.8) or Russell Wilson's (5.7), all of who qualified and finished in the top five in yards per rush.
The most fruitful yards often come from Kaepernick reacting to pressure and making the best judgment call he can on the fly. The two defensive elements that trigger that thought process are if the opposition is locked up in man coverage or sending a blitz.
Here is a look at what we’re talking about.
On this play, the 49ers are in a third-and-long situation deep in Green Bay territory. The offense dials up the 02 personnel, coming out of the shotgun formation with an empty backfield. Prior to the snap, the Packers stack the line of scrimmage and show man coverage, shading San Francisco’s five eligible receivers.
Out of a Cover 2 Man with two deep safeties, GB only winds up sending four after Kap, which includes Pro Bowl LB Clay Matthews coming in hot off the weak side. With the ‘Niners receivers streaking toward the end zone, all of the coverage is occupied downfield and the four-man rush is stagnant versus the offensive line.
As the two defensive lineman fail to push the pocket, Matthews and fellow linebacker Erik Walden over-pursue on the edges and, all of a sudden, the entire field is Kaepernick’s. With the DBs temporarily removed from the play, No. 7 steps up, turns on the jets and finds an angle to the end zone.
But also acknowledge the pocket presence, as Kap feels the two OLBs behind him, Matthews (No. 52) and Walden (No. 93), who broke off their blockers that instant. Showing incredible athletic instincts, Kap runs not a moment too soon and avoids what could have been a strip-sack.
This is the danger of playing man-to-man versus the 49ers and not having enough men in the box to contain Kaepernick.
One of the biggest weapons for a defensive coordinator is the blitz, but Kaepernick can take it and use it against his opponent, as evidenced in this fourth-quarter play against the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII. The ‘Niners are down eight points, in scoring position with 10 minutes to go.
Greg Roman sends out the 22 personnel with three eligible receivers overloading the right side of the formation. The Ravens and their thick-bodied defensive front crowd the box, showing blitz with zone coverage on the back end.
Off the snap, seven Ravens shoot the gaps in pursuit of Kaepernick, as Baltimore’s secondary hangs back in quarters coverage. The 49ers signal-caller bounces the play out to the weak side of the formation, gets behind the blitz and has a clean lane down the sideline for a 15-yard touchdown.
Again, Kaepernick is actively looking to make a play through the air, but as a dual threat he has more options than a traditional pocket passer when it comes to reacting to pressure. Moreover, his unique abilities will drastically change the thinking of defensive coordinators.
Extra examples from the 49ers and Nevada-Reno:
- Against Green Bay, Kaepernick ducks a cornerback blitz from Casey Hayward in the NFC Divisional Playoffs, rushing for a first down and more (play ends: 59:09).
- Against Green Bay, Kaepernick steps up against a heavy blitz, chewing up the field for big yardage (play ends: 1:04:28).
- Against Green Bay, Kaepernick snakes his way through a congested front seven, moves the chains and almost scores a touchdown (play ends: 7:46).
- Against Atlanta, Kaepernick leaks out the left side, finding some running room down the sideline, gaining a first down and more (play ends: 10:16).
- Against New England, Kaepernick steps up against a pocket closing around him, rushing down the field for a first down and more (play ends: 0:47).
- Against St. Louis, Kaepernick sidesteps the pass-rush, bolting downfield for huge yardage (play ends: 1:37).
- Against Boise State, Kaepernick dodges the safety blitz by rolling out to his left, pump-faking before rushing to the pylon for a score (play ends: 5:17).
- Against Louisiana Tech, Kaepernick pulls back his throw to protect the ball from an incoming defender, tucks it and breaks tackles down the field for a touchdown (play ends: 8:56).
- Against Louisiana Tech, Kaepernick pumps, blindly rolls out to his left and make an amazing play with his feet that results in a touchdown (play ends: 10:36).
This is the way Kaepernick intrinsically plays the game: feeling pressure and finding open field. Oftentimes, a hitch or a sidestep is not enough to evade a blitz, so for many traditional quarterbacks without that kind of mobility, the play results in a sack, or worse. Kap is not limited in that regard.
The second part of his unique ability in the pocket is that he can escape pressure, stay behind the line of scrimmage and make throws. Like Randall Cunningham and Michael Vick before him, he's slick, which makes it hard for defenders to grip one of his limbs or even find a handful of jersey.
Keeping his eyes downfield, the 49ers quarterback can nimbly slip incoming blitzers and extend the play. Again, referring to his athletic ability, Kaepernick shows a lot of pop in his step. This goes back to his sudden movements, in that he can use that explosive jump to dodge the rush.
This instinctual feature of his game allows him to relocate, buy time for his receivers and often catch defenses off-guard. His ability to keep the play alive and turn a five-second play into a 15-second play is extremely advantageous to San Francisco’s offense for several reasons.
- It wears down both defensive lineman and defensive backs by making them rush and cover for longer periods of time.
- It challenges the defense to play disciplined football.
- It often pulls the coverage out of position, creating throwing windows for Kaepernick.
- In a game of inches where momentum counts for something, it can be greatly demoralizing for a defense.
This example in a game against the Saints exemplifies how Kaepernick’s shiftiness in the pocket can be troublesome for defensive units.
As you can see, the rush gets through and the defensive lineman even gets a hand on Kap’s ankle. But instead of tensing up and going down in the pocket, the quarterback goes limp, wiggles loose and gets outside the tackle box. He then communicates with his wide receiver, Michael Crabtree, and throws to him down the right sideline.
On this play, Kaepernick shows superb balance, control and overall focus in the face of pressure.
Moreover, he is able to turn what should have been a negative play into a big-time gainer for the 49ers offense. This kind of natural playmaking ability is hard to come by, but it is part of who Kaepernick is as a player. It defined his skill set during his time in the NCAA (See: Nevada vs. Cal, Nevada vs. Louisiana Tech).
As a dual threat, No. 7’s ability as a scrambler will take precedence in the league, and as you can see in the video above, it will be difficult for teams to defend, mainly because they cannot game-plan for it.
Whether the scrambling results in a big run downfield or capitalization on busted coverage, Kap’s pocket presence will differ from that of conventional quarterbacks. The options he will have to throw or run will challenge defenses, wearing them down mentally and physically.
Throwing Across His Body
First off, this is a big no-no and should be attempted as little as possible. The primary reason it is frowned upon is because footwork plays such a fundamental role in a quarterback’s delivery, and ultimately, the ball loses velocity when the passer cannot step into a throw.
The significance of throwing across the body—whether it’s a right-handed passer going left or a left-handed passer going right—is how unnatural and extremely difficult it is to do with accuracy.
More often than not, throwing on the run and/or across the body results in an awkward release. Passes tend to sail, fall short of the target or at least allow the defender a chance to make a play on a gyrating ball. Very rarely is it tight and on-point. Not even four-time MVP Peyton Manning can throw moving outside the pocket (even to his right).
However, as two completely different quarterbacks, this is one of the more noteworthy factors differentiating a traditional player like Manning (pocket passer) from Kaepernick (dual-threat quarterback). In the case of Manning, the defense instantly gets the advantage when No. 18 breaks the pocket, unlike Kap, who is flat-out dangerous outside the hashes.
Playing his brand of schoolyard ball, Kap has made a lot of chancy throws in his college and pro career, but has repeatedly stunned onlookers and defenses by putting it on the money. One of the things he has been able to do fairly consistently is throw across his body while on the run.
This individual, Colin Kaepernick, can throw the ball moving to his left as good as any human being I’ve ever watched. And that’s not an understatement. Going to his left, I’ve never seen anybody come close. He makes throws that you would say, ‘No, no, no,’ and then he makes you go, ‘Oh my gosh, how’d he do that?’ – Trent Dilfer, ESPN Analyst
This is particularly advantageous for Kaepernick, because again, it opens up options. Given his ability to throw on either side, he can attack the entire football field, which will become a strain on defenses.
Also, the offensive line does not always win. Therefore, quarterbacks occasionally have to make throws from an unorthodox position. Sometimes a player is asked to make something out of nothing, especially in today’s league with these superior pass-rushers breathing down their necks.
Watch Kaepernick ad-lib:
Why Kaepernick can do it:
NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock originally alluded to this part of Kap’s game as an issue, citing why he was going to need further development at the next level. “He’s still a project. His upper body and his lower body don’t connect,” said Mayock at the 2011 draft.
In actuality, Mayock pinpointed the very asset that allows Kap to throw from these unorthodox positions. Essentially, the 49ers quarterback does not always rely on his stance to deliver an accurate ball. So when Mayock says that the upper body and lower body don’t connect, that must mean that Kaepernick has some familiarity throwing from just the waist up.
It comes down to muscle memory—having enough repetitions doing it. If you look back at his tape from Nevada, he clearly did it enough and, physically, his body can twist that way. For this reason, Kap can run to his left and has a good feel for throwing an accurate football from awkward positions.
How it affects defenses:
When Kaepernick gets loose on the perimeter, it challenges defensive players and forces them to make a decision. They can close on the quarterback or stick to their assignment. But, even if they make the correct choice, having to think for even a second causes hesitation that allows a receiver to get free or opens up an alley for the quarterback.
In the case of Kap going to his left, a defensive player may be skeptical of his ability to make or even attempt a throw. On this play (ends: 10:19), Charles Woodson is late to cover Frank Gore in the flat and thinking about rushing Kap, which allows No. 21 to get behind him for a 45-yard catch and run.
The moment of indecision by Woodson is an example of it creating openings down the field. If players continue to doubt his ability to throw against his body, he is going to continue to eat up yards down the left side. In the future, safeties and corners in particular need to play with more discipline on the back end.
This demonstrates how Kap can manipulate defenses as both a dangerous scrambler and precision passer.
Also, you have to consider the angles of his throws, particularly on fly routes outside the numbers. Instead of throwing diagonally across the field, Kaepernick can give his receivers an advantage by leaving the pocket, getting parallel with his receiver and launching it straight downfield, right over the top of the defense.
It circumvents traffic in the middle of the field, as well as potential DBs lurking in the quarterback’s blind spot. When Kap gets mobile, he pulls the defense out of position, which can create a lot of green area on any given part of the field, especially downfield.
Again, this is an element of Kaepernick's game that is unique to him, and something he has experience with from his college days. It worked well on several occasions, too, so 49ers fans don’t need to cover their eyes as much as they think (See: 1:28 vs. Cal, 4:30 vs. Boise State, 6:27 vs. Boise State and 8:24 vs. Louisiana Tech).
The sample size in the pros is small, but it appears to have carried over, as you can see in these two clips versus the Arizona Cardinals in Week 17 (to Delanie Walker, to Michael Crabtree). He settled into the role late in the season and felt comfortable doing the things he was used to doing with the Wolf Pack.
Only 10 starts separate the third-year pro from an NCAA quarterback, which is a good indication that the totality of his game is yet to be seen. This 2013 offseason will be his first as a starter, so the rise of Kap effectively remains in motion. We may even be a few years away from the finished product, when he eventually plateaus, but I digress.
Being that he is inherently different, Kaepernick will attempt things on the field that differentiate him from the pack (Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, etc.), exploring what is possible at the QB position. No. 7 will do new things and take routine execution to another level.
As one of the pioneers breaking through this wall of modernist signal-callers—which may lead to a new era of quarterbacking in the National Football League—naturally there comes trial and error, followed by inevitable development.
Entering his first full 16-game schedule as a starter, Kap will go big on Sundays, and he will sporadically make mistakes, but not without having revelations along the way. As he tests out what works, he will continue to add layers to his game and refine his ability as a dual threat.
Going forward, Kaepernick currently has the inside track on his way to becoming one of the NFL’s top quarterbacks. Since his college game is applicable to the pro level, he will not have to adapt or cut loose the parts of his game that makes him special.
Moreover his output in 2012 is a testament to his masterful ability, proving he doesn’t have to conform to the traditional dropback passer role. The 49ers quarterback posted an 80.2 Total QBR, which was the second-highest in the National Football League behind Peyton Manning (82.2), per NFL Live.
On the ground or in the air, Kap will continue to put his team in an optimal position to win games.
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.