It’s very easy to look at the raw numbers and blame Colin Kaepernick for San Francisco’s loss to Seattle on Sunday. The fourth quarter, looking back on tape, is something of a horror show—two interceptions and a fumble lost in a game where the 49ers essentially had to play perfect in order to win.
The grand total of 17 passing yards in the first half looks horrible, especially in retrospect. In a win, Kaepernick’s scrambles might be contextualized as a great player finding ways to hurt the opposition no matter what.
With the loss, however, comes questions—is Kaepernick the sort of quarterback the team needs for the long run? Is he capable of progressing through his reads rather than locking down on one receiver? Does he have the right combination of winning stuff to win in Seattle? Is he, in fact, an overhyped product of the read-option, who received too much credit last year?
This is an overreaction.
First and foremost, it’s important to remember just how good Seattle’s pass defense is. The Seahawks finished the season with a DVOA rating of minus-34.3 percent, enough to be the top in the league. They are also the seventh-best defense Football Outsiders has ever measured, stretching back to 1989.
Moving the ball against them was always going to be a nightmare. Is 17 yards in a half bad? Yes, it is. But a significant chunk of that can be chalked up to the skill of Seattle’s defense.
Secondly, remember that yards on the ground count just as much as yards through the air. When you add together his passing and rushing totals and remove the six yards from the two sacks, Kaepernick accounted for 89.9 percent of the 49ers offense.
The non-Kaepernick run game picked up 31 yards, total, with Frank Gore in particular having an awful day, gaining 14 yards on only 11 carries. Kaepernick wasn’t hampering the 49ers offense; on the contrary, on a day when San Francisco simply couldn’t move the ball on the ground, he was providing nearly all of it.
147 (including sacks)
None of this excuses the three turnovers in the fourth quarter, mind you. Kaepernick still needs to grow as a passer, and many of the complaints that have been raised about his ability to throw from the pocket, rather than running at the first sign of trouble, are definitely valid.
It is important to remember Kaepernick is only 26 years old; quarterbacks usually have a year or two of improvement left in them at that age, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com. That means he’s going to make mistakes—mistakes he needs to learn from. Let’s look at the three turnovers from the championship game.
This particular turnover is not entirely Kaepernick’s fault. He does have a nasty habit of holding the ball loosely in one hand while scrambling, but at this point, he’s still looking to throw it downfield. Alex Boone let Cliff Avril demolish him, collapsing the pocket before quickly. Had Avril not blown by Boone, Leroy Hill was coming on strong having completely burned Anthony Davis on the opposite side.
Kaepernick is culpable of not sensing these players coming from his blind side, but I blame this turnover much more on the failure of the right side of the offensive line than on Kaepernick in particular.
Had the hit come a second earlier, he would have still had the ball protected. Had the hit come a second later, Kaepernick would have already been in his throwing motion, and it would likely have resulted in an incomplete pass. It was poor timing more than anything else.
This is the one Kaepernick’s getting the most heat for overall, and it’s not hard to see why.
Kam Chancellor does disguise his coverage somewhat, lining up on the inside as if he’s bringing pressure and leaving Byron Maxwell one-on-one with Boldin on the outside. Still, Kaepernick turns back to Boldin, who looks to be the second read on the play, almost a full second before he fires the pass out there—that’s plenty of time to notice Chancellor lurking. It’s a misread, and a bad one.
The throw wasn’t fantastic either—an inch or so higher, and maybe that makes it over Chancellor’s arms and into Boldin’s. This is where Kaepernick has struggled the most—switching to his second read and performing accurately. This has to improve going forward.
Kaepernick is at fault here for one major thing—he stares Crabtree down the whole way. Looking at the field, Vernon Davis is open on a five-yard out route, and Quinton Patton is standing alone at the line of scrimmage. Neither of these passes would win you the game, but with two timeouts remaining, Kaepernick could have hit one of them and gotten a little closer.
Instead, he zeroes in on the Crabtree versus Richard Sherman matchup, which might not be where you want to go with the game on the line. This pass was the only time, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the 49ers threw at Sherman all game long; Walter Thurmond was the closest thing they had to a positive matchup in the secondary.
There’s a reason Sherman wasn’t targeted—he’s really, really good. He was actually slightly out of position on the play and still made enough of a move to tip the ball and give Malcom Smith the game-sealing interception. There really wasn’t a place Kaepernick could have thrown the ball here and had it work—he really needed to check down to a different receiver. Instead, it was an interception, and the game was over.
Ironically, these interceptions might help the 49ers out in the long term. Kaepernick’s cheap, second-round rookie contract expires after next season, per Spotrac, and they will almost certainly look to sign him long term.
A win in the NFC Championship Game could have severely increased his value, with CBS’ Jason La Canfora predicting that it could be ranked as one of the top five contracts in NFL history. Instead, the 49ers still have a bit more wriggle room, with Kaepernick under contract for 2014.
They could hold strong and try to get an upper-tier—but not game-breaking—contract extension done for Kaepernick—think more the Philip Rivers or Ben Roethlisberger deals rather than a Joe Flacco-esque extension. That would give San Francisco more cap space to extend other key players such as Michael Crabtree and Aldon Smith.
The loss hurts now, but to put it all on Kaepernick’s shoulders is to ignore that he was the reason the 49ers were competitive in the game in the first place. There are a great number of aspects of his passing game that still need work, but it’s important to realize that he’s still a work in progress at this point.
He’s a young quarterback who’s still developing. He has a bright future ahead of him—and he definitely has the potential to keep the 49ers in championship contention for years to come.