Trouble in the pocket
The San Francisco 49ers are in deep trouble. They are not proficient enough on offense to get to the playoffs without going through the Wild Card Round. A Super Bowl appearance in 2013 is becoming a distant and almost unattainable goal.
The numbers tell the tale. They're scoring just 12 points per game to date. They have the fewest receptions by wide receivers, at 62, in the NFL.
The 49ers are 32nd of 32 teams in passing and 29th in yards per game. Kaepernick holds the 32nd spot for a passer in the fourth quarter.
Even the genius coach, Jim Harbaugh, is having trouble. He has won only two of five red-flag challenges in 2013, so far. Something is amiss with the accuracy of the advice he is getting from upstairs.
Last year the same team with essentially the same people went all the way to the Super Bowl, so what is so different?
Some call it the "bounce of the ball" excuse. If not for an unnecessary roughness penalty, the 49ers may have won the last game against the New Orleans Saints.
In short, the offense is not clicking.
The 49ers are missing key receivers, but they also have several very good receivers. Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis would make almost any other team an instant winner, all by themselves. Add Frank Gore as a dump-off receiver and Vance MacDonald as a safety valve, and there are four good, competent receivers available. Also, Mario Manningham is working his way back into football shape, adding a fifth. And Michael Crabtree may be only a couple of games away.
So why can’t Kaepernick find and connect with them more often and more efficiently?
NFL.com made the point that Kaepernick was not trained for the NFL style of quarterback play. His college experience allowed him to make a single read and decide whether to throw to the designated receiver, pull the ball down and hand it off to the running back, or keep it and run it—the read-option, they call it.
He did not gain experience going from one read to another to another, like the average NFL quarterback must do. He needs time to develop that skill. Some quarterbacks never do adequately develop it in the NFL.
That is why he sometimes looks confounded behind center. Once the NFL developed a way to stop or at least curtail his read-option skills, he was left with making decisions he has not had to make before.
Kaepernick cannot yet do the Joe Montana thing where he always seemed to find an open guy at just the right second to get the ball to him. Without Crabtree, with whom he had worked extensively, he looks lost.
He still has the talent, can throw a laser and is accurate when comfortable. But now he needs to concentrate on developing the ability for reading the open guy—the skill other quarterbacks come into the league with as rookies.
And he has his work cut out for him.
Play-calling in the NFL of today is not as simple as most of us would think. It is not the same as the old days of football, when a team knew a half-dozen run plays and a half-dozen pass plays. The defense, on the other hand, had several defenses planned to counter each of those dozen or so plays. Whoever guessed right would win the play.
If the offense correctly guessed what the defense would think they were going to do, they could change the play while over the center to take advantage of the defense.
If the defense guessed which pass or run the offense would run, they would position themselves to have the best chance of success in countering it.
But professional football is no longer that simple. Most plays today are multiple plays in one—plays that evolve after the snap depending on who on the defense does what. Plays are no longer single plays, but more and more plays are complicated and situational.
The players themselves have also evolved; they are much more cerebral than in the past. Defensive players can change their movements during a play depending on how that play is developing. Some seem to be prescient; they seem to know just what play is going to be called and where the ball if going to be, and head for it right away. That is not true, they are just reacting automatically to something they have studied over and over.
The playbook itself has also evolved; less of the pages are of single play calls, most are of contingencies; if this defensive player goes here, use this play. If the defender goes there, then you do this other thing. This means each player must not only run his route or block his guy, he must diagnose the play while it is in progress to determine which move he must make.
Timing and accuracy in diagnosing a play while it is in progress are paramount to success.
This puts an intense strain on the decision-making of all of the players, both defense and offense.
Bill Walsh had a tendency to call 15 to 18 plays at the start of a game, and to come out at the half with several plays called in advance. That allowed Montana and Young to get the ball off quickly and keep the defense back on their heels.
It also aided the fast start the 49ers of that era were famous for.
In his day, that worked well to demonstrate what plays worked against a particular opponent on a particular day. He could then adjust his play-calling to fit the situation.
Given the difficulty the Niners have scoring this season, a temporary return to that design might be appropriate. Harbaugh and Roman might benefit from simplifying that offensive play set so Kaepernick understands the reads clearly and reacts without thinking during the games.
This play-calling design, along with the quarterback’s inexperience with pocket-passing techniques, is costing the 49ers dearly.
But for now, 49ers fans can expect more rough games ahead while Kaepernick learns his pocket-passing skills. Getting Manningham and Crabtree back will help loads, of course, but it may already be too late for a Super Bowl run this year.
As a Niners fan myself, I hope not.