The 49ers seem to be missing a quarterback. Colin Kaepernick has been as conservative as we’ve ever seen in his short career. His low passing numbers are well known; what isn’t known is where he and the 49ers go from here. He is one of several young quarterbacks struggling to help their team. Russel Wilson, Robert Griffin III, and Kaep have all been inconsistent, showing up to play in some games and getting shut down in others. Kaepernick became a star after taking over last season, and as a result his recent performance is being heavily scrutinized. However, it is too early to tell where he will go. After five games, no one can rightfully say that the league has figured Kaep out, nor can anyone say that he is playing at the level he reached last year. A lot of Kaep’s problems are the result of perception; after his incredible entrance last season, he has been hailed as a potential great, a franchise QB in the making, and an unbeatable athlete with a never before seen skillset. These predictions ignored many of the shortcomings he and the 49ers exhibited last year, and more importantly they ignored his lack of experience. Since he became the starter, we have seen many different sides of Kaep, and he has simply not had enough time to establish any consistency.The 49ers coaching staff believe that he can be every bit as good as the pundits say; it is now a matter of him keeping up. Here are a few of my thoughts on his recent struggles, and why I am not worried about Kaepernick (yet):
The 49ers have a winning record. This is a testament to the whole team, from the newly revitalized secondary to a special teams unit that looks vastly improved over last year’s. They have beaten two teams that reached the playoffs in 2012, one with a top-flight offense and the other with a #1 ranked defense. Despite Kaepernick looking totally lost against Seattle and Indianapolis, the 49ers are still very much in contention and will continue to succeed. This point isn’t directly revelatory of Kaepernick, but it is important to keep in mind.
Frank Gore and the Run Game:
Where Kaepernick has fallen short, Gore has thrived. This isn’t a bad thing; Frank Gore is one of the keys to the 49ers’ success. Since Jim Harbaugh arrived in 2011, the 49ers have a 14-0-1 record when Gore rushes for 80 yards or more (3-1-0 in the playoffs), and a 3-6-0 record when he is held under 50 yards. The 49ers offensive line and running back corp have excellent chemistry and are very difficult to stop once they get rolling. Even after Kaep took over, it was the excellent run blocking and gritty performances from Gore, Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James that helped establish the offense. Against the Seahawks and Colts, Greg Roman tried to reduce the ground attack, and as a result the 49ers offense looked lost.
You cannot overstate the lack of receiving talent the 49ers possess. This is not meant as an excuse for Kaep; it is simply a factor in what the 49ers can do against good defenses, and the options they have when trying to move the ball. Other than Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis, no one has stepped up and proven themselves as a threat. Vance McDonald and Kyle Williams have been non-existent, and the highly touted rookie Quinton Patton has been sidelined with an injury. Thus far, the 49ers have been surviving on great defense and the ground attack, and that may be all they have until Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham return. After Crabtree’s injury, I wrote a post about why it wasn’t the end of the world. I cited Kaep’s ability to throw to multiple receivers and creative play calling as good reasons not to worry. Thus far, neither has proven true.
Confidence and Experience:
The game against the Texans was Kaep’s 17th start. He is a very talented, inexperienced quarterback and is playing like one. The offense looked shaky against Seattle and Indianapolis, but this isn’t necessarily surprising. Kaep’s game seems to depend on confidence, both in himself and his team, and he hasn’t exhibited the same never-say-die swagger we saw last season. This does not mean his confidence isn’t there, or that last season was a fluke. After two wins, the 49ers are building up steam and learning what is working early in the season. The 49ers offense isn’t a static thing; it must evolve as Kaepernick improves and exhibits greater awareness. Forcing Kaep to pass against strong defenses didn’t work. The 49ers are facing some weaker teams in the coming weeks, and he will have some great opportunities to move the ball through the air. If you were to look at Andrew Luck or Russel Wilson’s first sixteen games, you would see the same mistakes. What put those quarterbacks in the playoffs was their coaches’ willingness to let them improve slowly and learn the offense. Kaep may be more experienced, but he clearly has plenty to learn and the 49ers need to recognize this.
The Many Faces of Kaep:
We have seen many different Kaepernicks. The Kaep that made plays with his arm against Green Bay in week 1 and picked apart the Patriots last season is different than the Kaep that broke the Packers with the read option in the playoffs, or the Kaep that started slow before he led two comebacks in the playoffs last year. We have also seen Kaep look intimidated and unsure, jerking around in the pocket before throwing an incomplete pass or interception. Most recently, we have seen Kaep the ‘game manager’, a taller, faster Alex Smith impersonator. The good and bad thing about Kaep is that he can be any of these things, but doesn’t seem to have great control of which shows up on any given week. Inconsistency is another rookie tendency, and it will only be really worrisome if it is still a problem next year. He played his heart out in 2012 to earn the starting job, but looks indecisive now that he’s made it. If we start to see a balanced offense that mixes the best of what Kaep can do with a power running game, the 49ers will be in good shape.
Conservative Playcalling and Winning the Turnover Battle:
Kaep has thrown 4 interceptions this season, all of them while Roman was calling a pass-heavy offensive attack. The 49ers defense has done a great job of forcing turnovers, and conservative playcalling has helped the 49ers win the turnover battle. Although it may not be exciting to watch, winning the turnover battle is crucial against contenders like the Colts or Seahawks. If a strong ground attack and an aggressive defense means the 49ers win games, I am all for it.
I guess what I am trying to say is ‘small sample size’. No, this isn’t baseball, and the 49ers have a pretty limited window to let Kaep develop, but it is too early to say anything definitive about him. This season, we have seen Kaep succeed and fail as a passer. It is important that he and the coaches figure out what is working and keep the ball moving. If we are still asking the same questions by week 12, we should start to worry. Until then, let’s keep feeding Frank and building momentum. How Kaep recovers after stumbling the last couple of weeks will be a good test of his leadership. He is the quarterback, and nothing I have seen since he replaced Alex Smith leads me to believe that he will back down from this challenge. Go Niners!