The Reality of Kaepernick
After his 49ers slogged their way through a 17-13 victory (at home, mind you) over struggling Washington (now 3-8), coach Jim Harbaugh was once again effusive in his praise of quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
“He’s a great player,” Harbaugh said. “I don’t know how everybody else doesn’t see it that way. Great with a capital ‘G’—at the highest level of great.”
Before we get into the number of ways that Kaepernick isn’t great, let’s state for the record that he actually played very well against Washington, despite the low-scoring output. In fact, Kaepernick has played well in two of his last three outings (the victory at New Orleans being the other, despite his poor statistics in that game). Against Washington, Kaepernick was an efficient 20 of 29 (68.7 percent) for 256 yards, one touchdown and one interception. And on the pick, it looked like Anquan Boldin was impeded on his route. Kaepernick was much more decisive in his reads, used sound mechanics on a more regular basis and did a good job spotting his open receivers.
Of course, you have to keep the opponent in mind. Washington entered the game ranked 23rd on defensive by FootballOutsiders.com, and 29th against the pass. Injury problems forced safety Brandon Meriweather, a subpar player at his normal position, to line up at cornerback. In short, Kaepernick, who tore up Washington last season as well, had an opponent that accentuated his passing strengths because they gave him a lot of quickly defined targets. Muddy the coverage looks after the snap; that’s when Kaepernick struggles.
It’s never going to look pretty with Kaepernick, or at least not any time soon, and I think we’re all just going to have to accept that. Kaepernick playing the role of pocket quarterback looks about as natural as me eating in a vegan restaurant. He lumbers in the pocket, constantly gets his shoulders pointed the wrong way while keeping a play alive (making it that much tougher to deliver a timely and accurate ball if he has to throw), and throws awkwardly. But more often than not, Kaepernick gets the job done. You don’t have to throw deep passes like Andrew Luck or use a motion as well tuned as Tom Brady’s to play quarterback in the NFL, you just have to produce.
And in that area, Kaepernick has been solid to this point. His 92.1 rating, 56.42 QBR and 1.7% interception rate are examples of that. He’s now 28-12 as a starter, including a 4-2 mark in the playoffs.
But what also needs to be taken into account is that the 49ers, largely, have been a Rolls Royce to drive if you’re a quarterback. It hasn’t always been perfect on a beat-up offensive line (that group has underachieved two years running) and injuries have hit the defense, but the 49ers have always had at least a viable running game and defense, and those areas have typically been major strengths. What Kaepernick has done to this point—and keep in mind this is only his second full season as a starter—is a little better than what should be expected.
The key question is this: Has Kaepernick’s play taken the 49ers to another level? Considering Alex Smith was 6-2-1 as a starter in 2012 before getting hurt and replaced by Kaepernick, I don’t know how anyone can definitively say yes. Advanced metrics aren’t helping Kaepernick’s cause either. He’s gone from third to seventh to 23rd (entering Sunday) in FootballOutsiders.com’s passing DVOA.
Another stat that’s not exactly a feather in the hat of Kaepernick or offensive coordinator Greg Roman: Sunday’s game-winning touchdown drive was just the second fourth-quarter touchdown and sixth second-half TD the 49ers have scored all season. Both numbers are league-worst. Over 11 games, San Francisco has had (not counting end-of-game scenarios) 60 second-half drives and scored touchdowns on just six of them. Overall, the 49ers entered Sunday ranked 22nd in touchdowns per drive (.187 per FootballOutsiders.com). The only team with a winning record and a worse rate is Detroit (26th, .174).
So Harbaugh needs to relax in the praise department when it comes to Kaepernick. It’s a little bit disappointing to hear a coach the quality of Harbaugh stretch the truth like that, but it’s not surprising. Kaepernick has always been his guy. When you bench a player and then trade a player who was playing as well as Smith was in 2012, what are you going to say about your handpicked quarterback (He should be better?). It would be refreshing to hear, but that’s not the way the NFL operates. If you knock a quarterback that you kept over another, it would be an indictment of your own ability as a coach and talent-evaluator. There aren’t many willing to do that.
There’s been a lot of consternation in the Bay Area about Kaepernick, and it isn’t unfounded. The good news is that he has been trending upward as of late, helping put the 49ers in position for a playoff push. With a final stretch that includes games against Seattle (twice), San Diego and Arizona, there is room for Kaepernick to continue his rise. The 49ers are going to need Kaepernick to be capital-G Great down the stretch to keep the season alive. Only then would Harbaugh’s assessment be right.
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