Struggling Colin Kaepernick Must Show Improvement for 49ers to Invest Past 2015

Cian Fahey@CianafFeatured ColumnistSeptember 27, 2015

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) looks to pass during the first half of an NFL football game against the Arizona Cardinals, Sunday, Sept. 27, 2015, in Glendale, Ariz.  (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

Colin Kaepernick's fall has been as fast as his rise.

It was just 2012 when the young quarterback exploded onto the scene, assuming Alex Smith's starting role and helping Jim Harbaugh's San Francisco 49ers to multiple NFC Championship games and one Super Bowl—a Super Bowl they were a few plays away from winning.

Since he and the 49ers' peak, Kaepernick's support cast has gradually declined. Declined to the point that his warts began to show up with greater regularity.

Kaepernick was never a great quarterback. His output and effectiveness were bloated by playing behind a dominant offensive line in a run-oriented offense that played to his strengths. That's not to say he was a bad quarterback, but he has always had his limitations.

Without dominant players around him to rely on and a coaching staff playing to his strength in their game plans, those limitations have had a greater impact on his output. His decline has been such that the 49ers should be concerned about whether he should be their quarterback moving forward.

The 27-year-old signed a seven-year, $126.97 million contract in 2014. However, that contract was structured in such a way that the 49ers could move on from Kaepernick relatively easily.

He received over $60 million in guaranteed money, but a huge percentage of that was designated as injury guaranteed, meaning Kaepernick would only get the money if he was injured. Cutting a fully healthy Kaepernick would mean that the contract reverted to guaranteeing only $13 million.

According to Over the Cap's salary-cap calculator, if the 49ers cut Kaepernick today, they would only create a little over $9.8 million in dead money.

Obviously, the 49ers aren't going to move on from the quarterback at this point of the season, but it could be a legitimate question mark entering the 2016 offseason. Kaepernick struggled a lot last year when asked to carry more of the offense, and that has continued into this season.

Not only has it continued, but it's worsened, as B/R Insights illustrated with Kaepernick's interception stat:

Against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 3 of this season, Kaepernick struggled more than he has at any other point in his career. He completed just nine of 19 passes for 67 yards with no touchdowns and four interceptions. 

His very first pass attempt of the game was intercepted.

Credit: NFL.com

Kaepernick came out in the shotgun with a running back to his left on 3rd-and-10. The quarterback had two receivers to either side of the formation, while the Cardinals weren't threatening any pressure upfront. While they weren't threatening pressure, they were rotating their coverage to the right side.

The Cardinals had their slot cornerback drop off deep, allowing their safety to that side to run back toward the middle of the field.

Credit: NFL.com

Recognizing that rotation to the top of the defense before the snap was important. It hinted at a blitz coming off the left side of the defense. That is what happened, as the defense blitzed their slot cornerback with man coverage on the back-end.

Kaepernick looked behind the blitzer where there was space, but he didn't have a quick option to throw to. Therefore, he had to hold the ball against the off-man coverage the defense was playing.

Credit: NFL.com

In this scenario, Kaepernick has to release the ball quickly to negate the incoming pressure. Instead of doing that, he holds the ball and fades backward through his release; this fading backward causes his pass to loft through the air instead of arriving quickly to his intended target.

The defensive back was able to intercept the pass because it floated.

Why did Kaepernick hold onto the ball so long and throw from an uncomfortable platform that caused the ball to float? Because he's not an anticipation passer. Kaepernick has never shown off a consistent ability to anticipate routes and release the ball at the right time.

Anquan Boldin is running an out route on this play. He is open, but the defensive back coming from his off alignment means he won't be open for long. Because Kaepernick has to wait to see Boldin come out of his break rather than throw the ball to a spot outside as he enters it, the pass can't be released early.

While this is just one play, it's a play that is indicative of who Kaepernick has been throughout his career.

During his time with Jim Harbaugh, the offense's focus on the running game allowed the 49ers to play in more favorable down-and-distance situations. Harbaugh helped Kaepernick make quick decisions with the routes he called in those situations—decisions that didn't require anticipation throws.

It didn't take Kaepernick long to throw his second interception.

Credit: NFL.com

His second interception came just a few minutes later during the 49ers' second offensive drive of the game. The quarterback lined up in the pistol formation on 2nd-and-9. The 49ers would use play action from this formation, but Kaepernick was expected to make a play from the pocket.

The Cardinals defense wasn't going to blitz the quarterback, so he would have time to sit in the pocket and read coverage.

Credit: NFL.com

What Kaepernick saw before the snap told him to look left after carrying out the play fake. Kaepernick should have quickly recognized that he wouldn't have a receiver open to that side, but his eyes lingered there through his drop.

As Kaepernick's eyes stared to the left side of the play, Boldin was wide-open on a curl route.

Boldin would likely have been open immediately after Kaepernick got the ball, but he was definitely open as the play developed, and the linebackers followed the quarterback's eyes to the far side of the field. A smart quarterback would quickly work his eyes back across the field.

Credit: NFL.com

Kaepernick was extremely late to bring his eyes back to the other side of the field. As he moved his eyes, he also moved his feet and disrupted his mechanics. He eventually threw the ball without setting his feet properly or establishing any kind of balance with his upper body.

Although his pass still arrived with plenty of velocity, he was so slow mentally that a defender could undercut it and run the ball back into the 49ers' end zone.

Reading defenses has never been Kaepernick's strength. Although it's often said unfairly about the league's more athletic quarterbacks, it's true when it comes to Kaepernick. He is a quarterback whose athleticism is his primary strength.

He does have great arm talent, but that arm talent doesn't come with consistent ball placement and/or touch. That lack of consistency could be seen on the play that led to his third interception, as he attempted a pass that his arm could make but didn't on this occasion.

Credit: NFL.com

Kaepernick had a huge amount of time and space in the pocket. He held the ball for a long time before locating Vernon Davis running a deep corner route downfield. Davis was always well-covered with a defensive back trailing behind him in man coverage.

To complete this pass, Kaepernick needs to drop the ball over Davis' left shoulder to lead him upfield, away from the defender.

Instead, Kaepernick's pass is way off target, and it drops so far underneath that Davis has no chance of even competing for the football in the air. This wasn't necessarily a bad quarterback decision because there was space to lead the receiver into; it was just a terribly executed pass.

That throw came late in the second quarter and ended any idea that the 49ers could muster a comeback and make the game competitive during the second half. When Kaepernick got the ball to start the third quarter, he immediately made a similar mistake by underthrowing a receiver downfield for his fourth interception.

This was just one game, but it was one game of a larger sample size that continually points to the 49ers moving on from their franchise quarterback. Bleacher Report's Matt Miller shared his analysis regarding Kaepernick:

Matt Miller @nfldraftscout

Kap's struggles are not "one game". It's been at least 18. https://t.co/ZtvboEJrnr

Forty-niners head coach Jim Tomsula said after the game that Kaepernick was still their quarterback (via Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle). That shouldn't come as a surprise and neither should that stance be reconsidered over the coming weeks unless Kaepernick completely implodes again.

The reason the 49ers can't move on from Kaepernick now is they don't have other options.

Blaine Gabbert is the team's backup quarterback. Gabbert is fortunate to still be on an NFL roster. He was a high pick in his draft, but he failed spectacularly and hasn't shown anything in preseason games to suggest he could improve on or even replicate what Kaepernick offers right now.

The unlikely, but still possible solution could be a trade.

The 49ers are a rebuilding team based on what they've done this year, who they selected in the 2015 draft and the overall state of their roster. It's rare that teams trade players during the season, especially quarterbacks, but it's a consideration the 49ers should make if they receive any real interest.

Kaepernick would need to play dramatically improved football over the next few weeks to even get to the point he would have trade value at this point, though.