When the San Francisco 49ers traded Alex Smith to the Kansas City Chiefs, there was a shift at the quarterback position not just in terms of who would play it, but more importantly how it would be played.
Instead of a pocket passer, the 49ers now had speed and athleticism with Colin Kaepernick, who took over the offense midway through the 2012 season.
Instead of conventional, the offense became exotic. Instead of being predictable, their running game was innovative, using line shifts and multiple options in the backfield to generate mismatches while leaning heavily on the read-option.
Instead of normal, the 49ers offense was far from it schematically in Kaepernick’s early days. Now? Normal has returned far too often.
That’s bad for Kaepernick, for the 49ers’ offensive production, and for any postseason aspirations they’re still clinging to tightly. Most of all, it’s bad for Jim Harbaugh's continued employment in San Francisco.
Kaepernick is often criticized for being, at best, a wildly inconsistent pocket passer. But a reality needs to be acknowledged: After 41 career starts (including playoffs), the Kaepernick we’re seeing now is likely the Kaepernick we’ll keep seeing.
Though there will surely still be some development, Kaepernick is a runner before he’s a passer and a scrambler before he’s a thrower. That’s his nature and mindset, and if it’s taken away he’s far less effective.
He becomes normal. He becomes Alex Smith.
Kaepernick’s flaws this season—like his poor field vision that often results in awful decisions or open options he simply doesn’t see—are his own, and his responsibility.
But while trying to help him improve, Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman should also be navigating around their quarterback's well-known weaknesses during games. They should be recognizing them and putting him in the best position to succeed. Too often, though, there’s been either stubbornness or a lack of direction, and Kaepernick has suffered because of it.
A loss to the Seattle Seahawks on Thanksgiving night in Week 13 serves as a prime example.
The 49ers offense is at its best while leaning on a power running game. And Kaepernick is comfortable when he’s given space and opportunities to run through read-option plays.
For reasons that are still unclear, the read-option was almost entirely abandoned against Seattle, as it was only used four times throughout the entire game. Designed runs for Kaepernick also didn’t exist.
Sure, the Seahawks defense is difficult to run against. But only for quarterbacks not named Kaepernick, as he posted 248 rushing yards on Seattle in 2013, a whopping 130 of which came during the playoffs in the NFC Championship Game (highlighted by a 58-yard run).
That aspect of Kaepernick's game was discarded during a crucial division matchup. It was an eventual loss that didn’t quite kill the 49ers’ playoff hopes but certainly delivered them a roundhouse kick.
Overall this season, Kaepernick’s running production is down compared to last year, though not significantly. He’s currently on pace to finish the 2014 regular season with 477 rushing yards, a fall from his 524 yards in 2013.
However, since the 49ers’ Week 8 bye, there’s been a shift. Over the past five games Kaepernick has averaged only 18.6 rushing yards. That’s tied to a lack of creativity and consistency from a Roman-led offense.
It’s understandable if the 49ers’ brass don't want their expensive quarterback taking as many vicious body shots while on the run. Given the problems with accuracy from both Kaepernick and the Redskins’ Robert Griffin III, we may indeed be seeing the “incredible erosion of the running quarterback,” as former Indianapolis Colts general manager Bill Polian told Sports Illustrated’s Peter King. The NFL is a league of offensive cycles, and course corrections happen fast.
But cementing Kaepernick to the pocket (from which he flees too early anyway) is still foolish. Asking him to run something that isn’t a read-option offense makes even less sense, especially with the continued success of that approach when it is used.
We don’t have to flip far back to see pounding and grinding 49ers football. The read-option was present immediately during the very first play of Week 11 in a win over the New York Giants.
Kaepernick initially lined up in the pistol with two tight ends and running back Frank Gore behind him. Gore then motioned to his right, and the rest was textbook power running. When Kaepernick saw unblocked linebacker Devon Kennard staying to the outside, he handed off to Gore, who then had tight end Vance McDonald directly in front as his lead blocker.
Kennard was held for just a beat by the threat of Kaepernick's run. Often that threat is more than enough for the 49ers’ running game to be successful, along with their offense as a whole. The illusion of a Kaepernick run needs to be present, opening lanes while distracting defenders from the real problem: Gore.
That’s what happened here, with Kennard unable to recover in time to seal off Gore’s cutback opening to the outside. The result was a 14-yard gain.
A reminder: That play came only a few weeks ago in a game when the 49ers rushed for 148 yards. It's a stark contrast to what we saw against the Seahawks, when option and power football was forgotten.
Now let’s flash back to Week 13 again and one of the few successful 49ers drives with something that resembled ball movement. It’s a drive that shines a bright, blinding light on Kaepernick’s fatal flaw that Roman and Harbaugh have to accept as a reality in their lives, at least for the next month: When you put him in a situation where simple vision from the quarterback is the lifeblood of a play, he’s removed from his natural environment.
Though the score felt so much worse at the time in the third quarter, San Francisco was still sort of, kind of in the game. They were down 16 points, but there was still a full quarter left, and a touchdown was suddenly within reach with the ball on Seattle’s 21-yard line.
On first down a play-action pass was called. Kaepernick faked to running back Carlos Hyde before rolling slightly to his right and then looking back to his left. That’s where he had three options: Hyde short in the flat, wide receiver Michael Crabtree running up the seam and fullback Bruce Miller.
Miller ran deep to the end zone and was blanketed by Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor. That's a pretty predictable outcome when a fullback is up against any safety, but especially Chancellor.
So of course, Kaepernick forced a throw into the worst possible matchup on the field, completely ignoring Hyde underneath.
The closest defender to Hyde was six yards away. He would have easily picked up a nice chunk gain and possibly enough for a first down, while advancing deep into the red zone. But no, Kaepernick really wanted that interception (Chancellor dropped it).
Kaepernick has rightfully been criticized for his tendency to lock onto one target instead of progressing through his reads, and that play is a glaring example. The awful judgment and worse result rests with the quarterback. But the sequence also shows a core disconnect in the 49ers’ offensive philosophy.
On Kaepernick’s misfire to Miller the intent was clearly to overload one side with two verticals (Miller and Crabtree), while Hyde was the bailout option. It was a play that started from a bunched, tight run formation, which sold the play action.
Then on the very next play three receivers trotted out, spreading the field. The change was abrupt and ineffective, and one of San Francisco’s few read-option attempts was stuffed.
Flipping through multiple looks without sticking with any single fundamental vision shows there are "too many cooks" in the offensive kitchen. That’s a problem outlined by Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee, who noted the 49ers have a congested 12 coaches on the offensive side of the ball, and only six on defense.
“All the substitutions and personnel packages are designed to keep defenses off-balance,” Barrows wrote. “But too often it has that very effect on the 49ers’ offense, which has had trouble finding—and moreover, sustaining—anything resembling a rhythm this season.”
It has the same effect on Kaepernick too, who’s thrived in the past when asked to move, to deceive, to run and to be himself.
Eventually the hope is that those simple reads will become part of his natural instincts, and the pocket will be a more comfortable place. But Kaepernick is still the same quarterback who made Smith expendable with his unique athletic brilliance.
Denying him the opportunity to use those gifts is a step backwards, and the root of the 49ers’ identity crisis.