SANTA CLARA, Calif. - After finishing with the 25th-ranked scoring offense in the NFL last year, the San Francisco 49ers spent the offseason doing a remodel.
They didn't knock the building over and pour a new foundation. Instead, they kept the existing framework in place by promoting quarterbacks coach Geep Chryst to offensive coordinator, who has an intimate knowledge of Colin Kaepernick strength's and weaknesses.
Jim Harbaugh's coaching staff in 2014 seemed dead set on forcing Kaepernick to become a pocket passer, regularly giving him spread formations with multiple receivers. The down-hill running game that was the team's staple during their three seasons of championship contention took a back seat to showcasing Kaepernick: The Passer.
But Kaepernick struggled to become that archtype. From 2013, his touchdown numbers fell from 21 to 19, while his interceptions rose from eight to 10, while attempting 62 more throws in total, or an average of almost four per game.
The early signs of training camp indicate Chryst's new passing game is focused on utilizing tight ends and running backs, giving Kaepernick more outlets if plays down field aren't there. Without having many check down options last season - Frank Gore was typically kept in the back field to help out in pass protection - Kaepernick was sacked 52 times, the second most in the NFL. In essence, trying to scramble was his outlet.
How do the 49ers plan on helping Kaepernick improve from the pocket?
By making more players available in easier spots to find.
A healthy Vernon Davis could help as he hopes to bounce back from a down year. Free-agent acquisition Reggie Bush brings the most receptions among active running backs to an offense that threw to its backs at the lowest rate in the league over the last three seasons, according to Pro Football Focus. In practice, Davis and Bush two have been used as check downs regularly, giving the offense a dynamic it lacked.
"Kap has weapons at every spot," said safety Eric Reid, who's been tasked with defending Kaepernick in training camp.
But if check downs are going to be an emphasis of the offense, Kaepernick has to evolve into an accurate thrower on short passes. Throughout the first week in training camp, he struggled, which was to be expected while learning a new offense.
Things were different this week, as the 49ers prepared for the Dallas Cowboys, who they play in their second preseason game Sunday night. Kaepernick was completing a number of throws in traffic, both short and long.
"I haven't seen any rough patches. We're all watching," head coach Jim Tomsula said. "I've seen something smoothly operating and growing, and getting in tune with the other pieces of the puzzle.
"I've been really happy with this week's practices. There's been a crispness ... I think that is because of the installation parts and people working together on things."
Kaepernick's still waiting to connect with Torrey Smith on a deep route. Their best chance came during a red-zone drill Thursday, but Smith was interfered with by cornerback Keith Reaser in the end zone.
Wednesday, Kaepernick and Smith spent time on the side field during a special teams session working on those deep connections. They had one chance in their first preseason game against the Texans, but Kaepernick's throw went a few yards too long and fell incomplete.
"It’s a good opportunity for us to be able to talk about it, really work out the fine details of where we want to be hitting that throw, how we want to go about doing those plays, and that gave us a good foundation to start," Kaepernick said Wednesday.
Much has been made of Kaepernick's work in Arizona this offseason, when he spent six weeks at the training facility EXOS with guru Dennis Gile. Kaepernick's adjustments appear to be more nuanced than drastic. His delivery is a touch more compact, and his stance a little wider. Otherwise, the focus of the changes is about becoming a more mindful quarterback, one tougher to defend.
Kaepernick made impressive throws this week, including to Davis on a deep corner route, and on the run to Vance McDonald to score a touchdown in an end-of-game drill. The 49ers are hoping he can throw a preseason touchdown pass Sunday for the first time since Aug. 29, 2013.
While Kaepernick's shown progression on the practice field, other questions about the offense remain. The offensive line is still looking to nail down its five-man starting group. A third receiver has yet to emerge while Jerome Simpson faces a six-game suspension and Bruce Ellington deals with a nagging muscle strain. And after having the worst season of his career, will Davis bounce back at 31?
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