When I first saw Colin Kaepernick play quarterback, I was actually studying the Pistol formation devised by then-Nevada head coach Chris Ault for an October 2010 Football Outsiders article. Kaepernick was playing for Ault back then, and on his way to a senior season in which he threw for 3,022 yards and 21 touchdowns against just eight interceptions, adding 1,206 rushing yards and 20 more touchdowns on the ground. It was clear that Kaepernick had the potential to be one of the best of the new wave of mobile quarterbacks with total football brains, and after a strong Senior Bowl and combine, he was selected in the second round of the 2011 draft by the San Francisco 49ers. Between Ault and 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh, Kaepernick played for two of the more exacting taskmasters at any level of football when it comes to his position, but he's proven to be ready all along.
The 49ers used him in a few option packages in his rookie season, but when starter Alex Smith went down with a concussion halfway through the 2012 campaign, Kaepernick stepped in and added an element of explosive play that was just what the doctor ordered. The 49ers came within one missed completion of winning Super Bowl XLVII at the end of that season, and with Kaepernick as the full-time starter in 2013, came within one more missed completion of beating the Seahawks in Seattle in the NFC Championship Game and going back to the big game.
In 23 starts over two seasons, Kaepernick has completed 382-of-639 regular-season passing attempts for 5,046 yards, 31 touchdowns and 11 picks. In the postseason, he's completed 94-of-162 passes for 1,374 yards, seven touchdowns and five interceptions. Add in his rushing ability, and it's clear that he's lived up to the hype early on. Now, however, there's a bit more pressure for the 16-game starter who attempted the fewest passes in the NFL last season. In early June, Kaepernick agreed to terms on a seven-year, $126.97 million contract extension with $61 million guaranteed. There's a lot of funny money in that deal -- it's more a year-to-year concern -- but the 49ers put their shoulder behind Kapernick's potential, and they're ready to push it forward. With the additions of receivers Stevie Johnson and Brandon Lloyd, the hope that Michael Crabtree will stay healthy, and the efficiency of tight end Vernon Davis, this team is as loaded for aerial attack as it's ever been during the Harbaugh era.
"We as an offensive staff, after three years here, it was kind of a, it’s time to clean out the garage type of thing," offensive coordinator Greg Roman said in June. "Where we kind of went through everything we’ve done and really kind of stripped it back down to its most elemental basic parts and started over at square one. Because it just felt like it was the right thing for us to do. So, we’ve been spending a lot of time on some very basic elements of what we do. And I think it will reap the reward.”
And how much of that is due to the fact that the coaching staff believes Kaepernick is ready for more?
“That’s definitely a factor. It really is his second full year starting, third year, fourth year in the system. So, he’s seeing things now that he didn’t see before. He’s right on track.”
His head coach agrees, saying in May that this is the time for Kaepernick to hit a new level.
"I really expect a real breakout year for Colin," Harbaugh said. "Athletically, he looks bionic. If you all remember the Six Million Dollar Man, that’s what it looks like to me. He’s very gifted and he always has been. He has the look and feel of a guy who’s really going to break out, even more so than he already has. I’m really excited about everything about his game right now.”
Kaepernick may be on track with the organization, but when it comes to the little things that make a handful of quarterbacks great, there's still work to be done. And if the 49ers decide to throw the ball more in 2014, that could come back to bite them unless Kaepernick is truly ready to put more on his shoulders from a mental and mechanical perspective.
I've discussed Kaepernick with Greg Cosell of NFL Films and ESPN's NFL Matchup for years. Cosell, who watches more tape than just about anyone who doesn't actually work for an NFL team, has always been appreciative of Kaepernick's basic skillset, but as the 49ers' quarterback comes into his fourth professional season, Cosell remains concerned about a few things.
"Kaepernick is a big, physical, explosive athlete with a power arm," Cosell said recently. "I don't think at this point in his career that he's a refined passer. At this point, I think he lacks touch and pace and tempo on his throws. I think that's one reason he struggled with the short passing game in particular -- he struggles with throws where he has to take a little something off the ball. The nature of his delivery impacts that a little bit. He's kind of a long-armed thrower. Even though his delivery is not slow, he's not really a compact thrower.
"When it comes to the subtleties of the position, while there was marginal improvement as last year progressed, I think he's got a way to go as far as understanding what he's seeing, both pre-snap and post-snap. There are too many plays where he would drop back, hit his back foot and just take off when it wasn't warranted. When you're on a team that has a very good defense and a very good run game, and you're a physical marvel for the position in terms of your movement, you can get away with that. ... Often times, you'll start to play better teams in bigger games, like Seattle in the fourth quarter last year, and he wasn't particularly sharp. That doesn't just happen -- there are reasons for that."
When I watch Kaepernick, this is my primary concern -- that there are too many times that he's reading the field very simply. The 49ers make it work because they present Kaepernick with schemes and formations that leave his primary read open a great deal of the time, but there are other instances, especially against defenses that disguise coverage well, that he appears out of his depth. The interception thrown to Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor in the fourth quarter of the NFC championship loss to Seattle was a perfect example of this.
There was 8:04 left in the game, and the Seahawks were up 20-17. The 49ers had the ball on their own 26-yard line with 1st-and-10, and they were lined up in a two-back formation, with receivers Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree in twins right. Boldin went in motion to the left pre-snap, and the way Seattle adjusted put Boldin in a clear pickle.
He seems to understand this, and he addressed it in the press conference just following his new deal, when asked where he needed to improve.
“I think you’re constantly trying to work on all parts of your game. But, as far as progressions, getting through reads, making better decisions in certain situations -- those are always things you’re trying to improve and it’s always easier in hindsight to say, ‘I should have done this, I could have done this,’ but it’s something you try to work to make sure in hindsight you’re making the right decisions.”
At this point, Kaepernick appears far more comfortable when he's running to his right in boot-action plays than he is when defenses compress his escape lanes and he's forced to make pocket throws. In smaller areas and with smaller windows, Kaepernick often bails from the pocket and runs if his first read isn't open. He's effective with this because he's such a tremendous athlete, but truly great quarterbacks have to throw from the pocket consistently and accurately -- there are no exceptions, no matter how mobile you are. In 2013, only Oakland's Terrelle Pryor and Seattle's Russell Wilson threw out of the pocket at a higher rate than Kaepernick's 27.8 percent, and only Wilson threw more passes out of the pocket than Kaepernick's 141. Kaepernick thrives on defensive chaos, and he understands how defenses are forced to adjust to his unique attributes. This is a big part of what makes him great, but he will eventually have to work past it.
"I can tell you from people I know who know Greg Roman well, that they really simplified things for Kaepernick," Cosell told me. "They know where he is in his development. And he has a way to go. But they're a really good team, and there's no question that the movement element Kaepernick has helps the offense. In certain critical down-and-distance situations, like 3rd-and-7 or less, it forces defenses to perhaps play a little differently than they'd like. So, quarterbacks like Kaepernick have a better understanding right off the bat of what the defenses are doing because the defenses become a little limited in their options [when playing them]."
Problem is, Kaepernick clearly becomes limited in his own options when asked to throw from the pocket consistently. This can be overcome -- everyone from Fran Tarkenton to Randall Cunningham to Michael Vick has learned to throw from the pocket to a greater or lesser degree -- but Kaepernick's development curve needs to accelerate quickly.
"At this point, he's not a particularly comfortable pocket quarterback unless the first read is right there," Cosell opined. "If the first read is right there, he can hit his back foot and throw it. In the playoff win against Carolina last year, I thought Greg Roman did an outstanding job of creating those opportunities for him with formations and motions and shifts. And then, he looks very sharp, because he can throw the ball -- we're not talking about a rag-armed quarterback. So, it's all a function of what the offensive coordinator does and how they set him up. You've got to remove the gray areas. At this point in time, he's not an advanced and refined progression reader. So, when he hits his back foot, he needs to know where the ball should go."
Kaepernick's biggest play as a passer in the 49ers' 23-10 divisional playoff win last season was a 45-yard pass to Boldin with 10:18 left in the third quarter. Boldin headed straight downfield covered by cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, who hesitated for a split second because he was A.) Watching Kaepernick in the pocket; and B.) Watching Davis run a quick out route. Boldin isn't exactly the fastest receiver in the NFL, but Munnerlyn helped him look rather speedy. This was a zone blitz by the Panthers, and it was blocked well enough to give Kaepernick time to make the deep throw -- and that's something he never has trouble doing.
The Ultimate Upside
It may appear as if this is a Kaepernick-bashing session, but it isn't -- he's got so much talent, and I think it's clear that he has the intelligence and work ethic to become one of the greats of the game. Clearly, he's got the physical attributes. But a fourth-year quarterback coming into this third year as a starter should be able to carry his team with his arm a pretty decent percentage of the time. Kaepernick averaged 26 passing attempts per game in 2013 -- to put that into perspective, Peyton Manning averaged 28.1 completions per game last season. After his 404-yard masterpiece against the Packers to open the 2013 season, Kaepernick didn't have another 300-yard passing game all year. In fact, the 49ers didn't break the 200-yard passing mark in 13 of their games last season, including the playoffs. They were 8-5 in those games. Not that those losses were all Kaepernick's fault, but in today's NFL, if you can't throw the ball consistently enough to create explosive plays, you're playing from behind even when you're winning.
What would happen, I asked Cosell, if the 49ers threw their offense in Kaepernick's direction all of a sudden?
"I think there'd be growing pains. I think there'd be trouble with that. Now, Kaepernick and Wilson are the two quarterbacks who are throwing the fewest passes among 16-game starters, and I think Wilson would be a little more advanced at this point in his career. Kaepernick, just like Wilson, is in an optimal situation. But as far as efficiency, I think Wilson is a more efficient player. Kaepernick has a chance to get there, but he's not there yet."
The Seahawks and 49ers have been strikingly similar since Harbaugh was hired in 2011 to renew his old Pac-10 rivalry with Pete Carroll. Both teams are looking to expand their offenses with young quarterbacks who have all the potential in the world. The 49ers appear to be caught betwixt and between, with a quarterback who can make miracles happen outside structure, but one who won't realize his true potential until he finds a structure that works for him.
For Colin Kaepernick, the 2014 season will tell a lot. And the pressure starts now.