Flashback, it’s 2012. The San Francisco 49ers offense is struggling and they have turned to a second year player out of Nevada to take over the offense. In the final seven regular season games, the young quarterback scores 14 total touchdowns while only turning the ball over five times. He was fast, he had a rocket launcher for an arm, he was electric and kept everyone on the edge of their seats; he was Colin Kaepernick.
Fast forward to 2014. That same player that captivated football fans everywhere has come under fire for the struggle of the 49ers offense. “He’s inconsistent. He can’t manage the pocket. His accuracy just isn’t where it needs to be in order for him to be a good quarterback. Blah blah blah.” (Real quote from everybody not named Ron Jaworski)
If you were referring to the 2012 a (and even 2013, for the most part) version of Kaepernick, then you’d be largely correct. But, if you were referring to the 2014 version of Kaepernick, you’d be mistaken.
Before diving into the film and subjective analysis, lets take a look at some of the numbers behind Kaepernick.
Colin Kaepernick #Numbers
|PFF Passing Grade||+2.7||-9.9|
|Dropbacks per Sack||12.92||11.30|
|Redzone Completion %||50.82%||64.7%|
|% of Snaps vs Pressure||34.72%||37.04%|
|Standard Deviation of Yards Per Attempt (YPA) on a game-by-game basis (through first 13 games of each season).||2.44||1.46|
The first three categories here paint a negative picture of Kaep. ProFootballFocus has deemed him to be nearly 13 points worse as an overall passer, his touchdown vs interception output is much worse than last year’s and he is getting sacked a bit more often (albeit, not really his fault).
But the next three favor Kaep. He is more efficient in the redzone, having to face pressure more often and is a more consistent passer on a week-to-week basis.
That final stat is one I want to really go into and give a math lesson about. Before starting anything, standard deviation is the average distance of a number from the mean of the group. Also, take note that the difference in deviations is .98, almost a full yard difference.
So, lets say you take the 26 performances (from his first 13 games of each season) and instead of keeping them in their respective years, you randomize them. Then, with the new “years,” new totals and deviations are calculated. Subtract the new “2013” season deviation by the new “2014” season deviation (just like I stated originally- the .98).
For example, a “new” difference would be .65.
What I am getting at is that I ran this simulation 100 times. Of those 100 trials, the .98 test stat was only reached or exceeded once, meaning there was only a 1% success rate, which is insufficient data to suggest that Kaep’s .98 difference happened by chance.
If you did not want to participate in a math lesson, what all of that gibberish means is that Kaepernick statistically became a more consistent/stable passer, yet he has been getting slammed for being too unpredictable of a quarterback.
Transitioning from the stat sheet to the field, Kaep has a few traits that stand out no matter what.
What Kaepernick Can Control
As everyone knows, Kaepernick has one of the best arms in the league. He can launch the ball down field 50 yards on a rope, as well as hit windows over the middle of the field that only a handful of NFL quarterbacks can hit. Having an arm like his also makes slants and out routes more routine throws, whereas someone with just an above average arm may lose a few possible completions because of the zip often required of these throws.
Though, his arm has always been used as a knock on him because he has been labeled as a one-speed thrower. I won’t sugarcoat it: he still is. I am not here to claim Kaep is a perfect player. On the other hand, Kaepernick has improved his accuracy this season, even if some of those throws come in a bit too hot.
Middle of the field throws and short timing routes, such as the out routes, have seemingly become easier for Kaep to throw and he is delivering the ball where it needs to be. Why? Namely, his footwork has become more consistent, especially after having to reset in the pocket. The only hang-up about his footwork is that he will take unnecessary hitch steps every now and then that completely disrupt a throw. Nonetheless, he is improved.
Take this throw, for example. Dropback, set, fire. With the defender as close as he was, both the timing and the strength of Kaep’s arm make this an easy throw for him and, one that he hits routinely.
Generally, Kaepernick’s functionality in a stable, established offense is smoother than ever before. He is quicker to go through his reads more often than before, his dropbacks and sets are cleaner and he is doing a better job of reading linebackers underneath post-snap. These factors play into the stat from before in which Kaepernick is a more consistent player because it also shows on film.
Even better than heightened stability is that his “streaks” of brilliance are absolutely terrifying. Between his arm, his athleticism, his instincts and his accuracy, when Kaep is in the zone, he can make any throw with ease. Take the Washington game, for example. The 49ers needed Kaep to step up as a hero, and he did. He was dealing on the final touchdown drive and his efforts are what sealed the win.
Aside from making these not-so-easy throws routine, Kaerpernick’s arm has enabled him to fit some windows that most others just can’t, as I already stated.
Not only is this a display of Kaepernick’s (new and improved) ability to maneuver the pocket, but he puts this throw on the money. What makes it even more impressive is that time was expiring and the 49ers needed this touchdown (and the following two-point conversion) to tie the game. But of course, Michael Crabtree can’t hang onto it.
High, bobbled snap, but Kaep doesn’t freak out. He keeps calm, goes through his progressions, moves up in the pocket and delivers a strike just out of the defensive back’s reach. *sigh* But alas, it is, of course, dropped.
As these past couple of plays have hinted at, Kaepernick is maneuvering the pocket more efficiently and comfortably this season. Not only has it made his throwing bases more consistent and cleaner, but if necessary, he can more easily vacate the pocket. Below are a handful of demonstrations of his pocket movement.
More efficient movement like this coupled with Kaep’s explosiveness in short areas makes him a weapon. At any given time, Kaepernick can turn nothing into something, and not many quarterbacks in the league can do that. Granted, this can be a double-edged sword for Kaepernick.
Sometimes, rather than escaping to make a great play or throw the ball away, Kaepernick will put too much faith in his arm and force a throw, almost always from a mobile platform. Other times, he just makes blatantly horrendous decisions.
I mean….. okay. This is such an irrational and mind numbing decision. Decisions of this nature are still something Kaepernick does more often than would be desired. Honestly, it may be a habit he never fixes, just as guys like Jay Cutler and Matthew Stafford have failed to fix this issue. Just part of who he is.
Of course, Kaepernick has other issues. Though he has generally looked more competent as a consistent passer, he has mental lapses pre-snap and, in other cases, will fail to identify the situation and throw to the best option.
3rd and 8, down by 14 points, but Kaepernick throws to the guy three yards short of the chains (Vernon Davis). If you look at the bottom of the screen, Michael Crabtree is running a slant just past the marker and linebacker Alex Ogletree is moving away from the direction of Crabtree’s break. Had Kaep held the deep coverage linebacker (James Lauranaitis) by staring at Davis, he has the arm to fit the throw to Crabtree and pick up the first down. He doesn’t do that, thus ending the drive.
Kaep targets the slant from the right hand side here, but he fails to see that the defender already has inside leverage. Instead of sticking with that read, Kaepernick needed to change-up his first read, most preferably to the slant from the left hand side in which the defender did not have inside leverage. Albeit, in order to keep the fake blitzer (No.52, Ogletree) from obstructing the line of sight, Kaep would have had to give a look to the left flanker receiver in order to keep the linebacker wide.
These two cases, especially the second, are asking a lot of a player who is only in his second season as a full-time starter. That is not an excuse for him to have come up short, but it does mean that he has time to improve on these things before entering his prime in a couple of years.
Now, like any offensive skill player, there are a handful of things that Kaepernick has no control over and simply has to deal with.
What Kaepernick Can’t Control
Informed fans and analysts have been saying it for years: Greg Roman is not a good offensive coordinator.
For one, Roman does a poor job of creating space for his receivers via mismatches, misdirection and not having bland tendencies. As I wrote about at an earlier date, coordinators like Kyle Shanahan, Bill Lazor and Chip Kelly (yes, I know he is the head coach, not the coordinator) have done a wonderful job of being creative and making it easier for their receivers to find space and be open.
His sets/formations are basic and the route concepts seldom flow together well enough to where one route opens up space for another. In that same regard, Roman does not do a proper job of setting up his receivers for yards after the catch. Curls and “sitting” routes over the middle are a huge part of Roman’s offense.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with these concepts when used appropriately, but Roman uses them all the time. Largely due to these routes that so often require the receiver to sit on the ball, the 49ers currently rank 29th in the league in Yards After the Catch per Reception (4.82 YAC per Reception).
For many, there will be an assumption that Kaepernick is to blame because of his ball placement forcing receivers to lose stride, but in reality, Kaepernick does not have this problem any more so than most other top quarterbacks.
What is more frustrating about Roman is that he is due for one or two awful play designs per game and his management of third downs has to be the worst in the NFL.
I don’t even know what this is. Roman puts six lineman on the field and uses fullback Bruce Miller as a seventh blocker. On top of that, Crabtree does absolutely nothing on this play. The only two receivers are the seam route and the check down to Frank Gore, which does not really become open until Kaernick has rushers in his face. This play is set up for the quarterback to fail.
3rd and 3, so what does Roman do? He has half of his receivers run fades, while the other two run some sort of short sitting route. This play is so terribly linear and the use of two field stretchers without properly using the stretched field to get a moving receiver over the middle of the field is inexcusably bad, especially considering how deep the St. Louis safeties had been playing. Yet even then, Kaep still almost makes this work.
The 49ers offense is backed up on their own five yard line, so Roman’s brilliant idea is to force Kaepernick halfway into the end zone with a wide five-step drop. This is even more ridiculous because of how menacing St. Louis’ defensive line is, which is evident on this play as two Rams rushers get free.
This play is not on Roman. Rather, the failure of this play can be credited to Anquan Boldin‘s poor handling of press coverage (on the route that was supposed to get the first down) and the immediate collapse of the offensive line. Plays like this have been a recurring issue for the 49ers.
Much like you saw Boldin struggle with on this play, this corps of 49ers can’t separate. Not only are they slow and deficient at the line of scrimmage, but they have been universally sub-par in creating separation from man coverage. Lack of ability to separate along with Roman’s incompetency to create space makes for a passing offense that is quite easily shut down.
And DO NOT throw out the “but Kaep has Vernon Davis” card. Davis has had what is probably the worst year of his career. He gets worked as a blocker, he has been slow running his routes and his hands have been a mess this season. For the most part, the effort just isn’t there from Davis. He is playing disinterested, which lead to him making comments about not being used, and the lack of use only lead to further disinterest. Once you get past his name, it is easy to see that he has not been a major asset for Kaepernick.
To be fair, Kaepernick has received support from his running backs and there has been a fair amount of respect warranted to the 49ers rushing offense, but aside from that, much of the situation around Kaepernick has not been helpful.
Colin Kaepernick is not a superstar quarterback, but to suggest that the collapse of the 49ers offense is on him is radical. Kaepernick has improved in a number of areas without seeing regression in other areas. It may not show in all of the numbers, but Kaepernick is an improved, more consistent and reliable passer.
Does he have room for improvement? Plenty! But that does not mean he is not good for what he is right now. Right now, Kaepernick is a play-making quarterback that can deal with pressure and make any throw. Though, he is also a young passer who needs to more clearly understand the playbook, defenses and where soft spots are/will be. Luckily, Kaepernick is just 27 years old and has time to build upon these things.
For the most part, Kaepernick succeeds in controlling what he can, but it is the aspects that he can not control that make it so easy for him to look worse than he is. It is time to realize those other factors at play and quit pointing to Kaepernick, a vulnerable target, as the scapegoat for the mess that is the San Francisco 49ers offense.