There might not be a young quarterback more burdened by early success in the NFL than Colin Kaepernick.
After all, as a second-year player and first-time starter in 2012, Kaepernick led the 49ers to the Super Bowl after taking over for Alex Smith midway through the season, just months after Smith won over a fan base six years in the making with his comeback win over the Saints in the 2011 Divisional Round of the playoffs.
But for all of Kaepernick’s success, highlighted by an impressive playoff resume featuring a gaudy 3-1 road record in the postseason (better than guys named Montana and Young, who were a combined 1-6), there is disappointment in the fact he hasn’t transcended to the top of the MVP discussion as he navigates through his second full season as a starter.
But consider this: through five games this year, Kaepernick’s completion percentage (64.7), passing yards per game (222.6) and rushing yards per game (41.0) are all career highs. And the 49ers are converting 46.6 percent of their third downs, seventh in the NFL, up from 31.1, which ranked 17th last year.
Perhaps some of the disappointment stems from his counterpart in Seattle, Russell Wilson, who won a Super Bowl and has vaulted himself into the MVP discussion through five games with the Seahawks, viewed by many as the favorites to repeat as champions, despite their 30-23 loss to the Cowboys Sunday. And perhaps now that Kaepernick is inked to a new six-year, $126 million deal, the perception surrounding him changes as San Francisco’s newly-minted franchise quarterback.
With his no-touchdown, one interception performance against Dallas, Wilson's passer rating fell to 99.7. Coming in, Wilson was third in the NFL at 112.9. Kaepernick is in the middle of the pack at 16th (91.3), where he is tied with Alex Smith, according to Pro Football Focus.
No, Kaepernick has not dominated games like he did in his first playoff start against the Packers, when he set an NFL record for a quarterback rushing for 181 yards.
But consider the 2012 season as the outlier.
The 49ers switched quarterbacks midway through the season, perhaps as they planned beforehand, knowing defenses would not be prepared for the 6’4” gazelle with one of the most explosive arms in football.
Kaepernick’s un-scouted read-option attack took the league, and opposing defenses, by storm. Coordinators had to adjust on the fly, instead of relying on their offseason preparation they did for Smith, who ran a vastly different style of offense than the 49ers’ new starter.
And in 2013, the read option was gone. Coordinator Greg Roman and his staff realized they had to adjust accordingly, knowing the opposition would do whatever it could to prevent Kaepernick from breaking games open with his legs. To be sure, playing through a chipped bone and ruptured capsule in his foot had to affect Kaepernick’s running game as well. In the conference title game last January, Kaepernick said the foot was no longer an issue. He ran for 130 yards against the Seahawks.
It was becoming apparent the way to beat the 49ers was to confine Kaepernick to pocket, where he only had Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin as viable outlets while Michael Crabtree was missing for 11 games recovering from his Achilles tear.
The 49ers finished with league’s 30th-ranked passing attack, averaging 186 yards per game. They were a running team that faced more loaded fronts than any in the league. Kaepernick’s most underrated trait of 2013? Not turning the ball over. His eight interceptions were tied for second-fewest among quarterbacks that took at least 50 percent of their team’s snaps.
Cut to this year, where the offense is dramatically different, evident by the team’s use of new personnel.
Our friends at Pro Football Focus provided this personnel data from 2013 and 2014.
49ers offensive personnel groupings in 2013:
22 – 26.2% (two running backs, two tight ends, one receiver)
21 – 26.2% (two RBs, one TE, two WRs)
11 – 21.6% (one RB, one TE, three WRs)
12 – 14.8% (one RB, two TEs, two WRs)
11 – 37.8%
21 – 23.3%
22 – 13.4%
12 – 8.2%
10 – 4.0% (one RB, four WRs)
00 – 4.0% (five WRs)
The big difference is the use of “11” personnel, which is up almost 12 percent from last season. That isn’t a surprise, given the additions of Brandon Lloyd and Stevie Johnson, who give the 49ers perhaps their deepest receiving corps in more than a decade. Four 49ers already have receiving touchdowns. Last year, Davis (13) and Boldin (8) accounted for all of San Francisco’s touchdown grabs except one: Crabtree’s 4-yard, first-quarter score in Week 15 in Tampa Bay.
Through five games, four different players have led the 49ers in receiving, matching last season’s total for the entire regular season. And that's with Davis' two-game absence with ankle and back injuries. Davis is questionable to play Monday against the Rams with back spasms.
More three-receiver sets means more progressions to make - an area of his game Kaepernick received criticism for last season. In 2014 Kaepernick is improving in that area, according to St. Louis linebacker James Laurinaitis.
“Heck, the Philadelphia play, where he throws it back across the field to Frank Gore, you see his awareness learning where his escape guys are, his check downs, better than he has been in the past. He seems to be finding the third read better than he has in the past.
”Before you could say…he’s going to one read, maybe two, and if not he’s taking off. But there are some where you can really see he’s finding the third or fourth guy. So he’s grown a little bit. I think that’s a good thing for them. We got to be disciplined. We have to be able to try to keep him in the pocket, not let him get outside. That’s what every defense in the NFL says when they play him. But they have to try to execute that and try to get after him a little bit, which, like I said, is easier said than done.”
Another area where Kaepernick gets criticism is his knack for leaving the pocket too early when pressure isn’t there. In Week 2 against the Bears, his second interception to Kyle Fuller was a result of throwing to tight end Derek Carrier late after leaving the pocket when it wasn’t necessary. The time he took roll left allowed Fuller to come off his man and jump the passing lane in front of the tight end. It was one of the game’s most important plays leading to the 49ers’ 28-20 loss to Chicago, who were trying to come back from a one-point deficit in the fourth quarter.
A similar play happened in last week’s win over the Chiefs, when Kaepernick felt pressure from the right and ran into a sack while Vance McDonald went uncovered downfield running a corner route to the end zone. The 49ers wound up kicking one of their five field goals on the day as a result.
That sequence also underlies the 49ers’ issues in the red zone. In the last two games, they settled for nine combined field goals, leading to wins over the Eagles and Chiefs by five points in each. Turn a few of those field goals into touchdowns, and those games become far more one sided.
San Francisco is scoring touchdowns on 44 percent of their red zone trips, ranking 25th in the league. And Phil Dawson’s 11 field goals are tied for the fourth most, indicating the team isn’t executing at the level it would like in opponents’ territory.
“We got to get (field goals) checked,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. “You’re trying to win the football game and you do so however you can. And the accumulation of points is certainly part of that.
”...Couple things in the red zone last week (against Kansas City), we should’ve scored touchdowns. We’re always striving to do that. However, each game is a little bit different. We’re going to try to get better in every area. Certain games play out different ways and you just got to make those decisions based on what’s going on.”
The team’s struggles in the red zone are indicative of the thin line between success and failure. And you don’t have to tell Kaepernick, who needs no reminder of how his last two seasons ended.
Ultimately, scoring touchdowns at a higher rate will change the way we frame the discussion of Kaepernick's evolution as a quarterback.
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