Uncovering four elements behind Colin Kaepernick's recent struggles

Friday November 15th, 2013

After leading the 49ers to the NFC title last season, Colin Kaepernick appeared to be one of the next big quarterbacks in the NFL. Thanks to the Niners' playoff run, he was mentioned first in the same breath as Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III. Less than one year later, many of those same people would list him last.

Through nine games this season, Kaepernick has completed just 56.4 percent of his passes for 1,675 yards, 7.6 yards per attempt, nine touchdowns and six interceptions. And don't forget, those numbers are skewed by a 412-yards, three-touchdown game Week 1 against the Packers. Take out that game, and his YPA falls more than half a yard. He has also regressed a bit as a runner, averaging 5.8 yards per carry after notching 6.6 YPC last season.

Perhaps more importantly for fantasy owners, Kaepernick's inconsistency has become a real problem. We define a stinker for a quarterback as scoring fewer than 12 points in standard scoring leagues, and Kaepernick has qualified four times this year. It's a real challenge to win when your quarterback can't give you a baseline level of production, and Kaepernick has put his owners in that bind far too often this season.

So what has been different for him in 2013 as opposed to 2012? In re-watching the 49ers' loss to the Panthers on Sunday, I saw four elements of the game holding Kaepernick back. First, he has not been nearly as efficient with his deep ball. Second, opposing defenses are getting to him with more frequency. Third, defenses are having more success against the read option. Finally, the injuries this team has suffered on offense are really starting to show up.

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Let's take a look at one play per problem from last week's Carolina game. This is the fourth play from scrimmage of the game. San Francisco has a 1st and 10 at its own 42-yard-line. The Niners come out with three receivers, including Anquan Boldin in the slot to the right of the formation. Here's what it looks like at the snap.

At the snap, Chase Blackburn takes Boldin before passing him off the secondary. Once Blackburn vacates, Boldin is wide open and Kaepernick has the entire middle of the field to use to connect with him. Look how open he is when Kaepernick begins to throw.

This has no business being an incomplete pass. Rather than leading Boldin, though, Kaepernick throws a strike right at him, allowing Captian Munnerlyn to undercut the route and nearly come away with the interception. At the very least, this should have been a big play. It could have been a touchdown with the right ball. Instead, it just sets up 2nd and 10.

Fast forward to the end of the first half. The Niners have a 1st and 10 and their own 32 with just more than a minute remaining. If they can put together a couple nice plays, the can build on their 9-7 lead.

San Francisco comes out in a shotgun formation with four receivers, trips left. When calling out coverages, Kaepernick fails to pick up on safety Mike Mitchell creeping ever closer to the line.

Mitchell takes off with the snap and bursts right through the hole opened for him by the Carolina defensive line. It results in an easy sack and kills any potential two-minute drill to put more points on the board before the half.

This next play takes place about halfway through the third quarter. It's 2nd and 1 at the San Francisco 38-yard-line and they go to their bread and butter, the read option. This one you can't really pin on Kaepernick. As we see from the screenshots, it's simply a great individual play by Greg Hardy. He plugs the initial hole, forcing Kaepernick to keep the ball, then jumps out and takes the quarterback down for a six-yard loss. The takeaway here is that the read-option has not been nearly as effective as it was last season, and that's curbing Kaepernick's production on the ground.

Lastly, let's take a look at a play on which Kaepernick did everything right, only to be undermined by a backup on the offense. Vernon Davis suffered a concussion in this game, leaving Vance McDonald to take over as the team's tight end. On 2nd and 15 early in the fourth quarter, Davis' absence would prove crucial.

The Niners again have four receivers, including McDonald, with a bunch to the right. Here's the look at the start, with McDonald at the front of the bunch.

McDonald draws Luke Kuechly in coverage, and because of the playfake to Frank Gore he is able to get a few steps on him and get open for what should be a big play. Here we can see just how open he is when Kaepernick loads up to throw.

Kaepernick puts the ball in a perfect spot, and though Kuechly has closed enough to stop this from being a potential touchdown, it should set up the Niners inside the red zone. Unfortunately, the ball clangs off McDonald's hands and drops for an incomplete pass.

All four of these realities have conspired to turn Kaepernick into a true fantasy bust who should not be counted on as anything more than a backup or matchup play as we head down the final stretch of the fantasy season. Meanwhile, Wilson, Luck and Griffin have all remained reliable starters for fantasy owners after strong rookie campaigns. He may have been at the head of the group after last year, but it's safe to say he's now bringing up the rear, at least in fantasy leagues.

All images are screen shots of All-22 film.

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