After Colin Kaepernick’s magical run in 2012, pundits around the league started to proclaim that the San Francisco 49ers might sport the best quarterback in the NFL. With signal-callers like Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning all embarking on the final stages of their respective careers, the idea didn’t seem too far-fetched.
Shoot, even Ron Jaworski of ESPN believed (prior to the season) that Kaepernick had all the necessary tools to be one of the “greatest quarterbacks ever.” In terms of physical tools, there aren’t many people who would disagree with that sentiment.
Yet, the third-year pro out of Nevada leaves plenty to be desired as far as the mental side of the game goes.
Nonetheless, it’s hard to argue with the numbers he amassed in 2012. In seven regular-season starts, he tallied 1,608 yards passing, 10 touchdowns through the air and two touchdowns on the ground. Additionally, the analysts at Pro Football Focus (subscription required) graded him out as the 12th-best quarterback in the league.
His successful regular season then carried over into the playoffs, which helped the 49ers make their first Super Bowl appearance since the 1994 season. Even though San Francisco came up a few yards short in the waning moments of the NFL’s biggest game, Kaepernick and Co. entered the 2013 season as Lombardi Trophy favorites.
Why? Because fans and media members alike acknowledged the fact that Kaepernick was going to only progress with more starts under his belt. For the most part, this theory has ended up being true. Yet, there are some key areas where he has regressed as well.
By playing a little game called “Fact or Fiction,” let’s dig deep into the archives and figure out which statements being made about Kaepernick are true and which ones are false heading into Week 14.
Kaepernick is “remedial” as a passer when opposing defenses take away his first read: Fiction
ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer caused a stir after he proclaimed on air that Kaepernick is a “remedial” passer when opposing defenses take away his first read.
Without a doubt, Dilfer is a top-notch analyst who is as skilled as they come as far as player evaluations go, but his comment was pure hyperbole. Sure, there could be some truth to his comment, but to say Kaepernick is a one-read quarterback 100 percent of the time is ridiculous.
Ponder this question for a moment: What is Kaepernick supposed do if his first, second and third options in the passing game are covered a majority of the time?
Is he supposed to ignore the fact that there are defenders draped all over his pass-catching targets and force the ball into tight windows? Obviously, the answer to that question is no, which means the tight ends and wide receivers who are the second and third options should be shouldering some of the blame as well.
When one takes the time to examine San Francisco’s Week 10 contest versus the Carolina Panthers, it’s evident that Kaepernick’s second and third receiving options were covered more often than not.
On this fourth-quarter play, Kaepernick’s first read was left wide receiver Mario Manningham.
The 49ers sent five players out on routes, so you would have to think he would have had an opportunity to hit his second or third progression if Manningham was unable to get open.
Lo and behold, Manningham was tightly covered by two defenders down the left sideline.
This meant Kaepernick had to quickly switch his vision and move onto his next target, tight end Vance McDonald. The only problem was McDonald wasn’t open either. He had a linebacker underneath of him and a safety over the top.
Even though Kaepernick would have liked to progress into his third option, he didn’t have enough time. The pocket was breaking down around him, and the remaining pass-catching targets were well-covered deep down the field.
Again, more of the same on this second fourth-quarter play: San Francisco’s offense sent five players out on routes and blocked Carolina’s front seven with five offensive linemen.
Unfortunately for the 49ers, Manningham (Kaepernick’s first read) failed to beat one-on-one coverage down the sideline, and the other two receiving options (away from the line of scrimmage) failed to separate as well.
Both examples show that a quarterback is only as good as his supporting cast. Two plays don’t necessarily tell the whole story, but they are good indicators as to why he struggled in the particular game where Dilfer criticized him.
Before making the harsh comment about Kaepernick being a one-read quarterback, Dilfer should have made it a point to watch the coaches' film. Broadcast film has the tendency to be misleading at times because viewers can’t see what’s happening down the field.
Instead of putting all of the blame on Kaepernick by calling him a one-read quarterback, Dilfer needs to spread the blame around. The wideouts have to find a way to get open, and the offensive coaching staff has to call better plays that put the receivers into places where they can adjust if the play breaks down.
At the end of the day, it’s a collective effort. Everyone on the offensive side of the ball could stand to improve.
Kaepernick is a less accurate passer than he was in 2012: Fact
Yes, this is somewhat of a blanket statement on the surface, but Kaepernick’s accuracy issues are glaring on every level.
In 2012, he completed 62.4 percent of his regular-season attempts (218 throws). This year, he’s only completing 57.8 percent of his throws on 303 attempts. His 4.6 percent drop has positioned him toward the bottom of the league in completion percentage.
Only six quarterbacks who have played at least 25 percent of their respective team’s snaps have a lower completion percentage than Kaepernick.
According to Pro Football Focus, things don’t get much better when dropped passes, throwaways, spiked balls, batted passes and passes where the quarterback was hit while he threw the ball are taken into account.
Under those circumstances, his completion percentage jumps up 11.3 percent. Yet, he’s still viewed as the 10th-most inaccurate quarterback in the league. Players like Jason Campbell, Terrelle Pryor and Matt Schaub all have higher adjusted accuracy percentages than Kaepernick. It’s funny how things can change so quickly.
At the end of last season, Kaepernick had an adjusted accuracy percentage that was the seventh-best figure in the NFL at 76 percent. He finished ahead of quarterbacks like Tom Brady and Philip Rivers, while tying one of last year’s top performers, Matt Ryan.
Experts say increased pressure in the pocket is to blame for his erroneous ways, but is that really the truth? No. Kaepernick is actually getting pressured about the same amount as he was last year. The only difference is he isn’t responding to the pressure the same way he did last year.
|When Colin Kaepernick is Under Pressure|
|Dropbacks||Pressure %||Sack %||Comp %||Acc %|
|Pro Football Focus|
As you can see in the chart above, the 49ers’ offensive line allowed a quarterback pressure 35.1 percent of the time in 2012. In 2013, that number surprisingly dropped to 34.1 percent.
However, in one year’s time, Kaepernick’s completion percentage under duress has dropped 10.8 percentage points. And his interceptions thrown under pressure have more than doubled.
Regression has the tendency to come and go at certain times throughout a player’s career, so it’s fair to say that this is something that can be fixed. Also, it doesn’t hurt that head coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman are perceived as offensive gurus.
Kaepernick has regressed as a deep-passing quarterback: Fact
So much of what the 49ers offense did last year was predicated on the play-action pass and connecting on deep throws down the field. In fact, Kaepernick was the most efficient deep-passing quarterback in the NFL at the end of the regular season.
Despite attempting a limited number of throws last year, 19 of his 135 completions came on throws that traveled 20 yards or more downfield. Of his 19 completions, five went for touchdowns, and only one was intercepted.
Plus, his 60 percent completion percentage was 7.4 percentage points higher than the next eligible quarterback.
By examining his passing chart, it becomes apparent that his most successful passing area on the field was the deep right quadrant. When Kaepernick threw the ball deep down the right sideline, he was 7-of-14 for 227 yards and two touchdowns.
Sadly for the 49ers, his numbers have taken a turn for the worse in 2013. On 46 targeted throws, he has garnered 17 completions, five touchdowns and two interceptions. Clearly, it’s a good thing that his interception totals are low. Yet, his touchdown pass figures have stayed the same.
Through 12 games this season, Kaepernick has the same amount of touchdowns, fewer yards and a much lower completion percentage.
Having wide receiver Michael Crabtree back in the lineup for the second time in as many weeks will help, but one player won’t help him turn back into the best deep-passing quarterback overnight.
Much like his accuracy issues, Kaepernick will have to work on his mechanics and strive to get better during the offseason. Nevertheless, he doesn’t have far to go to if he wants to be back on top. In spite of his regression, he is still one of the 15 best deep passers in the NFL.
Kaepernick’s running ability has thoroughly improved in 2013: Fiction
After Kaepernick torched the Green Bay Packers in the playoffs last year to the tune of 181 yards on 16 carries, people assumed the 230-pound long strider would become a more proficient runner in 2013.
49ers’ lead writer Dylan DeSimone of Bleacher Report felt this would be a natural progression for Kaepernick as well.
Here’s what he had to say when I reached out to him: “The talk in the offseason was that he'd become a faster, more technically efficient runner, having worked with Olympic sprinters and hurdlers, but that hasn't shown through.”
DeSimone is right: That hasn’t shown through. While a plus-1.4 run grade with four weeks left to play is good, Kaepernick ended the postseason with a plus-4.2 run grade from PFF in 2012.
For the sake of comparison, Kaepernick’s rushing performances in the playoffs last year are on par with the way Russell Wilson and Cam Newton are producing on the ground this year. The dip in production makes you wonder if he is simply more hesitant to run this year.
Matt Miller of Bleacher Report thinks this is the most logical answer. When I asked Miller what Kaepernick’s biggest area of regression was in 2013, here’s what he concluded:
“The biggest thing I can see is his hesitation to run. Going back to the playoffs last year versus this year, he's much more timid about pulling the ball down and running with it. So that affects his pocket presence, too, because he's more of a standard pocket passer and less of a scrambler.”
Hard to disagree with that sentiment. Kaepernick is currently averaging 5.7 rush attempts a game. In 10 starts (playoffs included) last season, he averaged 6.7 rush attempts per game. Sometimes stats don’t always tell you what you need to know, but they do in this case.
There’s no doubt that Kaepernick is not only running less, but he’s averaging fewer yards per carry and is on pace to find the end zone less this year. My solution: Use the read-option more. For whatever reason, San Francisco isn’t running a lot of read-option this year.
By not deploying the read-option, the 49ers are putting themselves at a direct disadvantage. Without the read-option, it forces Kaepernick to be a quote, unquote normal NFL quarterback. Furthermore, it allows opposing defenses to throw more complicated blitz packages and schemes at him.
Getting back to the Super Bowl will undoubtedly be an uphill battle for the Niners, but their odds would substantially increase thanks to Kaepernick. All he has to do is find his groove on the ground again.
Every year, different quarterbacks are scrutinized for different reasons. For years, Peyton Manning was dogged because he couldn’t win the big one, while Alex Smith has been pegged as the guy who will get you to the playoffs but will never take you to the promised land.
Most of the time, the criticisms are warranted. Organizations have extremely high expectations for quarterbacks, so it only makes sense that players at the quarterback position are put under the microscope on a weekly basis.
By playing “Fact or Fiction,” Kaepernick has proven to us that he has taken a step back in almost every way, and that the objections in regard to his performances are justified.
When I questioned DeSimone of Bleacher Report about naming an area of improvement for Kaepernick, he couldn’t: “I don't believe there's any area where he improved from last year. At least nothing visible on game day.”
From now until the end of the season, Kaepernick needs to worry about one thing, consistency.
Playing consistent football from here on out will help him take baby steps in the right direction. As I mentioned above, things won’t happen overnight. But if he can piece things back together one by one, the answers to the “Fact or Fiction” questions will look entirely different the next time around.