Why Colin Kaepernick Is the NFL's Ultimate Enigma

Joseph Akeley@@Jakeley_BRAnalyst INovember 14, 2014

NEW ORLEANS, LA - NOVEMBER 09:  Colin Kaepernick #7 of the San Francisco 49ers takes the field for a game against the New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on November 9, 2014 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Colin Kaepernick is better than you think...and worse than you think.

Yes, you read that right. In some areas, he's underrated. In others, he's overrated. 

Which is why articles like this one have a purpose: to inform readers so they can decide. 

When researching Kaepernick's 2014 season and NFL career, what you'll find is gray area surrounding specs of black and white. Or, in other words, the ultimate enigma.

Conflicting stats

Kaepernick is more accurate than Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck and Tom Brady. 

That's straight from Pro Football Focus' 2014 accuracy percentage stat: 

QB Accuracy Percentage
PlayerAcc. %NFL rank
P. Manning74.911
Pro Football Focus

As the site states, accuracy percentage doesn't count drops, throwaways and spikes against the quarterback. Kaepernick goes from 20th in the NFL in completion percentage to seventh in accuracy percentage (subscription required) because of this. 

He is also fourth in PFF QB Rating.

PFF QB Rating
1. Rodgers103.1
2. Roethlisberger98.4
3. P. Manning96.8
4. Kaepernick96.7
5. Romo95.3
Pro Football Focus

Among many things the site's rating takes into account is air yard percentage, which is the percentage of the yards gained prior to the catch and run. Kaepernick is third in that stat. 

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These stats suggest that Kaepernick has consistently thrown the ball deeper and more accurately than most quarterbacks. You could say he's been a borderline elite passer.

PFF QB Rating is a good starting point, but just like any stat, it is not the end-all. Another useful stat is ESPN's QBR. It tells a different story. 

Kaepernick ranks 21st in the league in QBR.

The two big reasons for this are QBR accounts for performance in "clutch" situations and sacks taken. 

Kaepernick has the highest sack percentage in the NFL, so it comes as no surprise that he's last in "Sack Estimated Points Added." Though San Francisco's offensive line has struggled to protect him, it's obvious at this point that Kaepernick's tendency to hold onto the ball too long is a reason he's been sacked 31 times in nine games. 

As for his clutch rating, it's arguably lower than it should be. For example, in the 13-10 Rams loss, all QBR recorded was a failure on the last drive. In reality, he was very good on that drive. A fluky fumbled exchange cost him (his QBR was 13.4 out of 100). 

Still, he deserved a low overall rating for that game anyway. He was dreadful against one of the worst defenses in league by most basic statistics.

Of course, stats can be deceiving (as I'm sure most of you think at least one of the aforementioned stats is). What's as important is evaluating the players around the quarterback to try to find out whether he is lifting their play. When doing that, you'll find more dilemmas. 

Conflicting perceptions

Before the season started, NFL media analyst Bucky Brooks wrote that the 49ers have the fourth-best receiver corps in the NFL and one of the deepest pass-catching units in recent history.

That was the common theme. With Stevie Johnson and Brandon Lloyd added to a group including Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis, Kaepernick was set to have his best season yet. 

After a 1-2 start, many were quick to blame Kaepernick for San Francisco's offensive failures.

That's when Bleacher Report analyst and former quarterback Chris Simms came to Kaepernick's defense. He called the Niners' wide receiver corps "very overrated." 

"There's no defensive coordinator who is staying up late saying, 'How are we going to orchestrate a defense to stop Michael Crabtree, Stevie Johnson and Anquan Boldin?'" Simms said. "They're solid receivers, but none of them are an NFL No. 1 receiver."

On one hand, Brooks has a point. Most teams don't have the quality depth the 49ers have. On the other hand, Simms has a point. Not one of the 49ers' wide receivers is a burner, nor is one particularly tall.

Drop Rate for 49ers Receivers
Pro Football Focus (*played in Baltimore)

You could make an argument that Boldin is a No. 1 receiver, but he's not even close to a top-10 receiver. And though it's a deep group of pass-catchers, it's also leading the NFL in drop rate, per PFF. 

Let's shift focus to the offensive line. 

A few months before the 2014 season started, Mike Tanier (then of Sports on Earth, now of Bleacher Report) wrote that the 49ers have a top-10 offensive line. He shared his concerns about the line's pass blocking, but ultimately he came to a popular conclusionthe 49ers' complex and successful rushing attack was bolstered by one of the best run-blocking lines in the league. 

At this point, most are beginning to realize Kaepernick is playing behind a struggling unit. The 49ers are 20th in PFF's pass-blocking rankings and 31st in Football Outsiders' pass-protection rankings.

49ers OL PFF Ranks
Pass Blocking7th10th20th
Run Blocking1st2nd4th
Pro Football Focus

There is a "chicken or the egg" argument at play. Is Kaepernick's poor pocket presence and pressure awareness the bigger issue, or is the offensive line's pass blocking more at fault?

The best way to avoid sacks is to run the ball frequently and effectively. What's most concerning is the 49ers aren't doing either this season.

When taking away Kaepernick's rushing totals, the Niners are averaging just 3.9 yards per carry. It's left 49ers coaches between a rock and a hard place. They either call run plays against stacked boxes knowing they'll frequently be in 2nd-and-long and 3rd-and-medium, or they call pass plays on early downs knowing they'll make more big plays but also allow more drive-killing sacks.

After the loss to the Rams, Bay Area Sports Guy summed up the general perception.

"The coaching isn't great, the O-line keeps sinking to new lows, and the quarterback doesn’t seem capable of making things work despite a group of wide receivers and running backs that a lot of teams would love to have," he wrote.

Though the advanced stats suggest the San Francisco receivers and offensive line have been mediocre, Kaepernick is often given the "doing less with more" label. 

Prior to the 49ers' 22-17 win over the Chiefs on Oct. 5, Grant Cohn of The Press Democrat wrote that the 49ers should have kept Alex Smith as their starting quarterback instead of trading him away during the 2013 offseason. He blamed Kaepernick for San Francisco's offensive scuffles and its playoff failures over the last two seasons: "If Smith had been the 49ers’ quarterback last season, the 49ers might have gone to the Super Bowl. Smith probably would not have turned the ball over three straight times in the fourth quarter against the Seahawks in the NFC championship game like Kaepernick did."

It's hard to disagree with Cohn on his last point. Smith probably would not have turned the ball over three straight times. 

However, the 49ers were having similar pass-blocking and run-blocking issues down the stretch last season. Kaepernick deserves some credit for getting the 49ers to the NFC Championship Game at all. 

2013 Playoffs: 49ers Total Yards Distribution
SF RBs6911131

But that's often lost in today's society. Fair or not, he is taking full blame. He rushed for 130 yards and twice led the 49ers to a seven-plus-point lead they didn't hold, but ultimately he'll continue to be the reason they lost to the Seahawks in the eyes of many.

So which is it? Is Kaepernick bringing down the offensive line and the wide receivers, or are those two respected units failing the fourth-year signal-caller?

The tape shows a little bit of both. 

Conflicting tape

The negatives that stand out when watching Kaepernick are his pressure awareness, pocket movement and field vision.

Against the Saints, we got a firsthand look at his pressure awareness. 

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

New Orleans dialed up an eight-man rush.

Any time a defense sends the house, the quarterback must get rid of the ball quickly. Instead, Kaepernick tried to scramble and was immediately sacked. 

We saw a combination of the three issues against the Rams. 

St. Louis rushed seven on this play. Though the pocket was collapsing quickly, he had a moment to step forward and deliver a strike to Michael Crabtree on the post pattern. Just look how open the middle of the field was:

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

Instead, after noticing Boldin—his first readwas covered, he chose to tuck and run right into a sack. His inability to diagnose the defense and get to his second receiver (two things I'm lumping into the "field vision" category) was alarmingly bad.

However, he's also shown an ability to excel in all three of the aforementioned quarterback qualities. Just look what he did on 4th-and-10 against the Saints:

Boldin and Gore are covered tightly downfield
Boldin and Gore are covered tightly downfieldCredit: NFL Game Rewind

Just to get this spot, he stepped up in the pocket to avoid a pass-rusher and drifted to the right to give himself more time. Boldin and Frank Gore are covered in this picture, and about 20 yards deeper on the same side of the field is a covered Brandon Lloyd.

Kaepernick, with rushers oncoming, got to his fourth read and delivered a 51-yard completion to Michael Crabtree: 

This play is an example of Kaepernick making his teammates look better. Most other quarterbacks wouldn't have been able to extend the play for so long. On top of that, how many would've been able to throw the ball more than 60 yards in the air?

Earlier in the same game, Kaepernick showed he can diagnose the soft spot of a defense and exploit it:

And though he's had issues beating the blitz recently, this throw from the pocket against a seven-man St. Louis rush shows he can burn an overaggressive defense:

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

The result? A 32-yard touchdown pass to Michael Crabtree.

If the defense blitzes, it better get to him. Kaepernick is the 10th-most accurate quarterback when facing pressure. 

If the defense drops seven-plus into coverage, he's capable of making it hurt. He's completed the eighth-most passes that have traveled at least 20 yards in the air. 

He has it in him to be great. But he also has it in him to be a disaster. Sometimes, we see flashes of both on consecutive plays.

Ultimate Enigma

How good is Kaepernick? With so many stats, perceptions and play examples clashing, that's an almost impossible question to answer. 

What is clear, though, is he's inconsistent from play to play, let alone game to game. 

Which, as NFL senior producer Greg Cosell said after the Rams loss on KNBR 680 AM, is "the worst thing for a quarterback."

"The concern is that he's now played in enough games where you'd like to see improvement in the subtle areas of playing quarterback," Cosell said. "The thing you don't want to have with your quarterback is being a week-to-week proposition, that you don't know what you're going to get."

Yet, despite struggling with some of the subtle areas of playing quarterback and poor offensive line play, Kaepernick's PFF QB Rating has gone up eight points from last year. It's possible that he's progressing, but we aren't seeing it in his stats because those around him are in decline. 

Whatever the case, the 49ers won't go anywhere in 2014 with the 20th-ranked scoring offense in the league. Not with Patrick Willis out for the season and NaVorro Bowman's return in doubt. 

What the 49ers need is consistently transcendent quarterback play. They need Kaepernick to shed the enigma label. 

Stats up to date through Week 10 games. Joseph Akeley is a San Francisco 49ers featured columnist. Follow Jakeley_BR on Twitter.


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