Kap's Struggles: Passing Fad Or Slippery Slope?
Following his Week 1 destruction of the Packers’ zone coverage that was geared to stop his running, Colin Kaepernick was getting gushing reviews. He is clearly the best young quarterback. He has the highest ceiling of any QB. The evaluations were very flattering, but ultimately were an overreaction to the way Green Bay overplayed their defense in Week 1. The Pack concentrated on stopping the running game, which allowed Kaepernick to pick apart the zone with the savvy Anquan Boldin finding the holes. Kap was never going to live up to the 400-yard performance of Week 1, but few predicted his struggles over the next few games.
Yes, he has led the Niners to three straight wins, but is Colin Kaepernick broken?
First off, Kaepernick had a number of issues working against him in his two losses. It was essentially a perfect storm going into Seattle for a Sunday night game in Week 2. The Seahawks set it up so that their crowd would attempt to break the Guinness World Record for loudest stadium. The 12th man got up to a brain-melting 131 decibels, breaking the old record. While Boldin is one of the smarter receivers in the league, he didn’t stand a chance against Richard Sherman. Vernon Davis — the best vertical weapon at Kap's disposal — pulled a hamstring in the third quarter, which effectively ended any chance Kap had to move the ball. The sheer reality of the situation was that the 49ers didn't have any wide receivers that could adequately separate from the Seattle’s corners.
The following week against Indianapolis, Kap faced similar issues. This time, he was without Vernon Davis, who was nursing his sore hammy. The Colts stacked the box, attempting to deter the run. Gore had a huge first drive, but was rendered ineffective for the rest of the game, mostly because Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman didn’t let him carry the mail. Anquan Boldin, Kyle Williams and the other receivers going up against Vontae Davis and Co. just couldn’t win their battles on the outside. Kaepernick faced some just criticism following the game for dropping his head after his first read and feeling pressure when it wasn’t there. The 49ers were losing by six points as late as midway through the fourth quarter. Kap couldn’t do what Andrew Luck has done nine times in the fourth quarter and complete a comeback victory.
Naturally, many were down on Kaepernick heading into a short week against a Rams team that gave San Francisco fits in 2012. After two blowout wins in a row, that Thursday night against St. Louis and the following Sunday against the reeling Texans, questions still remained. Kaepernick combined to go 21-of-38 with 280 yards and three TDs — remember, those numbers are through two games.
Similarly to Weeks 2 and 3, Kap had a number of factors working against him over those two games. The defense and running game both had huge days against the Rams and Texans, jumping out to huge leads. There just wasn’t much that Kaepernick had to do. Still, he made a few throws in each game that stood out. His three touchdown passes were all very pretty. Kap took advantage of the matchups he saw presnap, and made some nice throws down the middle of the field or to the sideline.
One thing that Kap doesn’t get enough flak for is his looseness with the ball. Sure, he has five interceptions through six games this season, but three of them came in Seattle. That’s not an excuse, but Seattle is quarterback hell for every signal-caller that walks into CenturyLink Field. His fumbles, though, are the worrisome figure. He has five in 2013, and most all of them have come when he’s escaping the pocket. What is positive is that his eyes are downfield looking to make a play with the ball. However, that has allowed defenders to smack the ball out, resulting in the turnover. He made that mistake again against Arizona, in addition to a massive red-zone interception.
As a passer, Kaepernick continues to make strides. He looked much more confident against Arizona, making reads of a solid defense and usually making the right decision. His touchdown tosses were both beautiful displays of touch, while showing off that big arm. In the 18-play, game-clinching drive, the Niners dominated running the ball, but on a few crucial third downs, Kaepernick was given the ball, made the read and completed the pass. He should be getting another deep threat back in a few weeks in Mario Manningham, which should help open things up underneath for Anquan Boldin. Michael Crabtree should be making his return by Week 11. No, he won’t be completely 100 percent until 2014 — and no, he won’t be playing a full complement of snaps, but the 49ers’ wide receiver corps is one of the worst in the league. His presence alone will open up the passing game. Kaepernick will have three very viable targets at that point.
But, it’s true, Kap hasn't looked nearly as dynamic as last season. That stems from his lack of running. Sure, he’s scrambled 17 times for 164 yards, good for 9.6 YPC, but it was the designed runs that made him so fun to watch. He has just nine designed runs for nine yards in 2013, according to Pro Football Focus. It’s no secret that defenses are doing a better job against the read-option this season; the average YPC has dropped by over a yard.
However, it seems like Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman have decided to protect their quarterback, maybe turning him into more of a pocket passer. Whether they’re hiding some formations for later in the season or the playoffs remains to be seen, but the 49ers seem content to let Kaepernick grow as a thrower. Playing through some growing pains, down two of his top receivers, will ultimately only help Kap in the longrun.