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49ers must salvage Kaepernick's confidence amid lost season

At least one team in Saturday night’s Chargers vs. 49ers matchup has something at stake. The 49ers may be playing out the string, but the Chargers are scrapping for their playoff lives. 

While they’re not as comprehensive a mess as the home team, the Chargers still have issues: Philip Rivers is nursing an assortment of injuries. San Diego’s rushing attack, tethered to the brittle Ryan Matthews, is the second feeblest in the NFL. On defense, they can’t get to the quarterback. San Diego’s 20 sacks are three more than two players -- Baltimore’s Elvis Dumervil and Justin Houston of the Chiefs -- and the fourth-fewest in the league.

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Take heart, Corey Liuget (3.5 sacks), Melvin Ingram and Dwight Freeney (3 apiece) -- you’ve come to the right place to beef up those anemic stats. In addition to being one of the NFL’s most oddly utilized, disappointing, frustrating and frustrated quarterbacks, Colin Kaepernick was also its most frequently sacked (49) this season, until Blake Bortles was dropped four times by the Titans on Thursday night to take the “lead” at 50. Nobody else is within ten sacks of that pair.

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But here’s the thing: Kaepernick is a 4.53-second forty guy who can run circles around the lumbering Bortles (whose 4.93 forty at last spring’s Combine was downright…Eli-esque.) That Kaepernick is at once one of the NFL’s most mobile and most frequently sacked quarterbacks speaks to the level of befuddlement, confusion and regression in which he finds himself at the end of his third year as a starter.

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​Numbers begin to tell the story. Kaepernick’s 60.5 completion percentage is 32nd among NFL quarterbacks. In Football Outsider’s categories measuring his total value, relative to the league’s other starters; and his value per play, he ranks 28th. But we don’t need advanced metrics to know that Kaepernick is a shell of the dazzling player who pureed the Packers for four touchdowns and 444 yards of total offense -- 181 of them on the ground -- in his playoff debut two years ago. There is a hesitation in his play, a doubt in his expression. He locks in on receivers, often fails to advance through his progression. He sprays the ball. Kaepernicking has been relegated, for now, to the dustbin of NFL history.

Prior to this season, the decision was made to move away from the zone reads and designed runs that sprung him for so many long gains in 2012 and ’13. By asking Kaepernick to do his best Peyton Manning impersonation, the 49ers left themselves with the worst of both worlds: Kaepernick is less of a threat to run because he’s trying -- but not succeeding -- to become a pocket passer. He is betwixt and between, a snake between skins. He’s lost his confidence, his mojo.

Meanwhile, with 31-year-old Frank Gore on a pace to rush for 919 yards, which would be the third-lowest total of his 10-year NFL career, the Niners have drifted from their identity. Indeed, with the dysfunction plaguing the club this season, it would be more accurate to say that the Niners haven’t lost their identity so much as they’ve borrowed Oakland’s.

On the bright side, Kaepernick has made a conscious effort over the last week or so to be more civil, less of a misanthrope with the media. The team’s beat writers have gotten away from counting the words in his press conferences, a sure sign that he’s trying harder to be nice. It’s as if someone got in his ear and said, “Hey kid -- your strongest ally in this organization-- the guy who urged us to draft you, and who made you the starter before a lot of people thought it was your turn -- is not going to be employed here for much longer. Whoever takes his place isn’t likely to be as big a fan of yours. So maybe lighten up a little, and lose the Barry Bonds shtick with the media.”

On Wednesday, in a gentle defense of his quarterback, the lame duck Harbaugh reminded reporters of the usefulness of seeing the offensive woes “in totality.”

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​“I think the quarterback a lot of times gets the scrutiny, but we’re a team.” Truly, the failure of the 49ers28th-ranked offense has many fathers. The offensive line has lacked cohesion; the play calling has lacked coherence -- possibly on account of too may cooks in the kitchen. Tight end Vernon Davis, coming off his second Pro Bowl, has spent the season under Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak. Between those woes and the uncertain, unsettling locker room vibe --  a byproduct of knowing the head coach’s days are numbered – this offense has been hard to watch, if not hard to stop.

When I asked Pete Carroll after Seattle’s 17-7 win over the Niners if Kaepernick could be fixed, the coach looked at me with incredulity. “Heck yeah! He’s a terrific player. He did a lot of good stuff today.”

Leading an 11-play, 85-yard scoring drive to give the Niners a 7-3 lead, Kap looked like his old self. This being the 2014 49ers, the good times did not last.

To return to those days when he haunted the dreams of defensive coordinators, Kaepernick needs to move forward, to -- if not reinvent himelf -- at least evolve. That’s the message from an NFL quarterbacks coach I spoke with.

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Each young quarterback comes into the league with his own unique set of weapons, which serve him well for a season or two. “Once you come around the track a third, fourth, fifth time,” says the coach, “teams adjust. You gotta complement that fastball with a couple other pitches. If you can cross some of these thresholds, you can keep playing. And if you can’t, you’re out.”

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Kaepernick’s situation is not that dire. But he definitely needs to learn -- or perfect -- some new tricks. He must push deeper into his progression; resist the urge to flee the pocket. His mechanics need to be more consistent, which will lead to improved accuracy.

All that becomes easier when the offense is firing on at least a few cylinders, which San Francisco’s hasn’t been. “Look at the Cowboys this year,” notes this coach. “People say, ‘Tony Romo’s killin’ it!’ Well, they have the number one rushing attack in the league. His line is keeping him clean. It’s much easier to do your job when the operating room is not in chaos.”

“It’s such a dependent position. There are no more Dan Marinos who can put the team on their back.”

He may get an argument there from Packers fans watching Aaron Rodgers this season. But we get his point. Kaepernick needs to evolve. He could also use a little help from his friends.