Colin Kaepernick's Career Crossroads

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystSeptember 14, 2015

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It's all right if you're confused by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. It's perfectly normal if there's an overwhelming sense of bewilderment that washes over as you consider the difference between who he is as an athlete and who he's become as a passer.

As an athlete, he's still gifted and still blessed with a 6'4", 230-pound body that covers 40 yards in 4.53 seconds. He does it with bounding, gazelle-like strides that, when in full flight, generate a seemingly effortless burst. His speed is powerful, but oddly graceful too. There's a lot of mindless joy out there on the Internet's far-reaching tubes, but still there's no video of Kaepernick's running set to one of Beethoven's classics.

We would all gladly stop there in any assessment of Kaepernick if it were possible. We could look back fondly on his quarterback single-game-record 181 rushing yards during the 2013 playoffs or his 90-yard run in 2014, the second-longest by a quarterback in league history.

But it doesn't work that way, which is where the confusion begins.

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Kaepernick isn't purely an athlete, a runner or even a read-option aficionado. He's all of those things, sure, but he has to be more.

He has to be a quarterback. And being a quarterback means developing comfort within the pocket over time. We're still waiting on that after some progress, which was followed by a regression and perhaps a plateau.

Coming off an offseason of tinkering with Kurt Warner watching as his personal tutor for 10 sessions, Kaepernick heads into the beginning of his 2015 season Monday night against the Minnesota Vikings, facing hurdles that are both familiar and daunting.

Can he harness his athletic ability, finding a balance between passer and runner? Can he remain poised in the pocket, delivering accurately against pressure instead of fleeing prematurely? And most of all, can he develop the required vision and patience to work through his reads?

Those questions aren't new. Broadly, they represent the standard checklist every college spread or option quarterback faces at the next level. But despite two straight NFC Championship Game appearances and one trip to the Super Bowl, we're still asking them about Kaepernick.

He was always going to be a project coming out of the Nevada Wolf Pack's pistol offense. Five years in, the work continues, and now Kaepernick's mental strides are more important than those galloping steps. With the 49ers roster crumbling around him, the 27-year-old has to become a trusted offensive pillar.

As Sigmund Bloom from Footballguys quite rightly quipped, that's a pretty terrifying thought after 2014:

But maybe, just maybe, the foundation for a shiny new Kaepernick was planted through a subtle yet significant tweak.

New throwing motion equals new Kaepernick?

There's not much of a difference between the Kaepernick of 2013 and the guy we saw in 2014, if you stick to some of the common surface statistics.

Colin Kaepernick: 2013 vs. 2014
YearComp %Passing yardsYards/gameTDsINTs
201460.53,369210.61910
201358.43,197199.8218
Source: NFL.com

But the stagnant growth lies in what's missing from that snapshot. Kaepernick's yards per attempt fell from 7.7 in 2013—good enough to place him ninth among the 42 quarterbacks who took at least 25 percent of their teams' snaps, according to Pro Football Focus—to 7.0 in 2014 (tied for 26th).

His passer rating also fell from 91.6 to 86.4. But the most troubling spike was how often Kaepernick became an easy target to pummel in the pocket.

He was sacked 52 times, which was the league's second-worst total and a drastic jump from his 39 sacks in 2013.

It would be easy and convenient to pin the blame for that ballooning number solely on Kaepernick's offensive line. Though those five large men certainly still bear some responsibility, please recall that left tackle Joe Staley and former guard Mike Iupati have combined for seven Pro Bowl appearances. Guard Alex Boone also allowed a modest 20 pressures over 966 snaps in 2014, according to PFF.

Much of the sack surge rested on Kaepernick's shoulders. Or rather his eyes and arm, as his ability to process what was happening in front of him both before and after the snap was lacking. A still-elongated throwing motion and windup didn't help matters either, with a slow release holding him back from capitalizing on what his eyes saw.

He worked diligently to correct both problems this offseason; early in training camp, video evidence emerged of a new delivery.

You might not notice a drastic difference there, because the subtle nuances of throwing mechanics can elude the untrained eye. But one immediate takeaway is the increased speed of his release that comes from a more compact motion.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee watched Kaepernick throughout training camp. He said that, although the tweaks may not pop out to the casual fan immediately, Kaepernick has changed as a passer, and it started with his feet.

"When you broke it down in the past, he had that long, almost baseball pitcher-like stride where he would take a long step into the pass, and that elongated the motion in general," Barrows told Bleacher Report during a phone conversation. "He has a wider stance now, and that step isn't as dramatic.

"In theory, at least, that also should create better accuracy, because you don't have as dramatic of a movement preceding the throw."

The hope and aim is to have a decluttering of sorts, with less movement leading to Kaepernick becoming more of a passer and less of a thrower.

And there is a difference. There has always been a difference.

Kaepernick is looking to become more refined as a passer after an offseason of work with Kurt Warner.
Kaepernick is looking to become more refined as a passer after an offseason of work with Kurt Warner.Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

"He's added a changeup to his list of pitches"

The title "pocket passer" is an industry-standard expectation for quarterbacks. It's repeated so often that we can lose sight of just how incredibly hard passing conventionally has become.

There are generously 10 NFL quarterbacks with the natural skill to sit, read and deliver. Behind them are a group of passers who can succeed in streaks and flashes. Then there's Kaepernick, who's in the murky middle while beginning his fifth season of trying to adapt and find comfort in the pocket.

He's navigating his learning curve at the highest level of football. It's important to understand and appreciate that challenge.

But at some point there needs to be a click and definitive progress. Eventually, the Kaepernick of 2011 has to look different than the Kaepernick we saw in 2014 or may see in 2015.

I spoke to Phil Savage, the former Cleveland Browns general manager who watched Kaepernick at the Senior Bowl as a Philadelphia Eagles player personnel executive in 2011. Has much changed since the 49ers quarterback was a raw prospect?

"He was a big, angular and long-limbed thrower who was performing almost exclusively in a pistol offense," Savage said. "The question was, like it is today for all these quarterbacks who play in a 'college system': Can they make the leap from that type of game to the NFL style?"

The answer so far has been excitement at Kaepernick's athletic gifts and instincts, followed by disappointment.

Kaepernick is one of only two quarterbacks in FBS history to run for over 3,000 yards in a college career and also pass for over 9,000.
Kaepernick is one of only two quarterbacks in FBS history to run for over 3,000 yards in a college career and also pass for over 9,000.Joe Robbins/Getty Images

"Has he advanced as a true NFL quarterback? I would say probably not as much as people had hoped for," Savage added.

"I don't know that [Kaepernick] is ever going to be a full-field reader. I don't think he grew up that way as a quarterback, and it's a really difficult transition. But what they should obviously try to do is cut the field in half, give him some either/or reads and put him outside on a bootleg. Give him some designed movement where, essentially just because of that movement, the field shrinks. It limits the task of him trying to sequence from one receiver to another."

Then he returned to that defining question: Is Kaepernick a passer or a thrower? Can he put the necessary touch on passes to float balls into tight spaces? Or will he eternally be firing his football laser beams?

"When you watch him, you don't get the sense you're watching a real consistent passer," said Savage. "You feel like you're watching a thrower, and a guy who's going to flash some big plays."

The mission ahead, then, hasn't changed. Kaepernick needs to become a more complete quarterback, and accomplishing that in part means mastering the finer points of ball placement.

He's only just beginning the process of implementing the changes Warner helped with this offseason. The true test is whether he reverts to old habits when games matter.

But so far there's a distinct change in one area: He's doing more than just throwing straight heat; he isn't only a fastball pitcher.

So you're telling me Colin Kaepernick isn't a pitcher?
So you're telling me Colin Kaepernick isn't a pitcher?Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

"He's received some criticism for throwing a 100 mph fastball even when his target was 10 feet away," said Barrows. "I've definitely noticed there's more touch on those short passes. He's more used to doing that now and is working on it more.

"If you're looking for one aspect of his game where I do see a difference, I'd definitely say that short game. He's added a changeup to his list of pitches."

That finesse will ideally help with Kaepernick's comfort in the pocket as he gains confidence in his ability to make shorter throws amid chaos.

That is encouraging, because the pocket is where his future as a starting quarterback will either flourish or wither away.

"You have to be able to sit there and wait"

You may have an image in your head of the pocket passer. That mental picture shows the New England Patriots' Tom Brady or the Denver BroncosPeyton Manning. They're accurate and have high-level vision. But they're also largely immobile, never threatening to burst downfield.

Kaepernick doesn't have to be that quarterback. He can still be, well, himself, and do it while becoming a sort of hybrid breed. He can capitalize on open space, just as he did during the 49ers' third preseason game, with 53 rushing yards on only three carries.

Kaepernick finished the preseason with 62 rushing yards on only four carries.
Kaepernick finished the preseason with 62 rushing yards on only four carries.Michael Zagaris/Getty Images

But more often he needs to wait, decipher, select the right target and know when to pull the trigger. Patience and vision are deficiencies Russ Lande, a former Cleveland Browns scout and current director of scouting for the CFL's Montreal Alouettes, still see from Kaepernick.

"The biggest thing to me that's held him back, and unfortunately I think it'll be something that could hinder him and a lot of similar quarterbacks like Robert Griffin III or Cam Newton, is they often never become comfortable pocket passers," he said. "It's a long road.

"You have to be able to sit there and wait, wait, wait for that 2.5 to three seconds and try to find a receiver, rather than jumping as soon as there's pressure. Unfortunately he hasn't done that, and I really haven't seen a lot of maturation in terms of patience within the pocket."

The origin of the problem comes back to Kaepernick's roots, even though he's now far removed from Nevada's pistol offense.

"With Kaepernick, he's learning stuff he's never done before," said Lande. "Unfortunately, I think with any of these option guys, and Kaepernick in particular, the talent is so appealing in terms of what they could be that you're willing to gamble and throw him out there, letting him try to prove himself and develop. And from what I've seen of Kaepernick, I would not bet on him ever becoming a consistent starter now in the NFL."

Lance Zierlein, a draft analyst for NFL.com, echoed that concern. He had a second-round grade on Kaepernick in 2011, which ended up being correct when the 49ers selected the Wolf Pack standout with the 36th overall pick.

He sees similarities between Kaepernick the prospect and Kaepernick the NFL quarterback—some good and some not so good.

"The physical stuff is still the same," Zierlein said. "He still has the physical qualities and characteristics of a starting quarterback. But I think when he tries to operate at an advanced level, he still plays checkers more than he plays chess."

In fairness, checkers can be damn complicated, and there are lengthy strategic videos that make your head throb. But football checkers is a rudimentary game for opposing defensive coordinators to play.

The 49ers aren't tied to Kaepernick long-term while he plays under a year-to-year contract.
The 49ers aren't tied to Kaepernick long-term while he plays under a year-to-year contract.Michael Zagaris/Getty Images

That is the larger issue during a critical season for Kaepernick's development. If he doesn't progress both as a passer with his new throwing motion and as a quarterback with improved vision, the 49ers won't be a legitimate threat offensively.

"Right now, I think San Francisco has become easy to game-plan against," said Zierlein. "And Kaepernick is one of the reasons."

It wasn't supposed to be that way. Just a few years ago, Kaepernick was among a trio of quarterbacks who seemed destined to pioneer a new approach to the position. Along with the Washington Redskins' Robert Griffin III and the Seattle Seahawks' Russell Wilson, he was able to manipulate defenses with play fakes, constantly moving mesh points and an overall element of surprise.

Now the NFL has evolved, and Kaepernick needs to do the same.