Jim Harbaugh made the risky move of changing his starting quarterback halfway through the season, but the San Francisco 49ers are one game deeper than they were last season, and he will now coach against his brother John and the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII.
Once again San Francisco brings an efficient, mobile quarterback mixed with a strong defense, but make no mistake; the 2012 49ers have not been a consistently dominant team as the numbers will show.
Consider the 49ers are the first team to ever reach the Super Bowl without having a winning streak of at least three games in the regular season. All season long it was two wins followed by a loss (or a tie) before finally coming through to win a third straight game in Atlanta last week, which was also the first time the 49ers won a game this season when trailing in the fourth quarter.
The following preview breaks down the advantages and disadvantages Colin Kaepernick has brought to the offense, along with the weakness that could decide the 49ers’ fate in Super Bowl XLVII.
Has Kaepernick really improved the offense over Alex Smith?
While we have seen backup quarterbacks lead teams to Super Bowl championships before (Tom Brady and Trent Dilfer the last two), rarely has there ever been a situation like the 2012 49ers with Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick.
Smith, third in the league with a 104.1 passer rating at the time, suffered a concussion in Week 10 against the Rams. Kaepernick replaced him in the second quarter, directed a comeback, and the 49ers finished the game with a 24-24 overtime tie. Kaepernick started the following week on Monday Night Football against the stingy Chicago Bears defense, and was dazzling in a 32-7 win.
From this point there was no rush to bring Smith back, and soon enough it was official: Kaepernick was the new starting quarterback of the 49ers.
Smith, who led the team to a 13-3 record and NFC Championship the previous season, who was off to an even better start this year, has been riding the bench ever since that fateful concussion and decision by Harbaugh.
While we will never know if the 49ers would have reached this point with Smith this year, we have enough data to look at the differences the team has undergone with Kaepernick.
Both quarterbacks actually finished the regular season with 218 pass attempts. For the following table, the season stats were essentially split through the first eight games and the last eight games of the regular season. Keep in mind it was the second quarter of game nine in which Smith was injured and replaced by Kaepernick.
Also of note is that Kaepernick did play some meaningful snaps before Week 10. He had nine pass attempts and 13 runs (two touchdowns). For stats like third-down conversions and in the red zone, the stats for the Week 10 game against St. Louis were adjusted for Smith’s drives.
In summary, the 49ers average 2.4 more points per game under Kaepernick, but it has been the defense that has regressed, allowing 8.4 more points per game as Justin Smith was injured, impacting the pass rush from Aldon Smith.
Smith did have the higher passer rating, but Kaepernick produced more big plays in the passing game, and took fewer sacks thanks to his mobility to escape pressure and throw on the run.
A surprising fact is the rushing game not being as dominant under Kaepernick, and that even includes his totals on the ground. Frank Gore’s rushing average went down 1.5 yards when Kaepernick took over, which would go against the narrative that the zone-read quarterback improves the running game.
Still, overall offensive performance is good, and the 49ers have had two fewer giveaways under Kaepernick. Time of possession is also nearly identical to what it was under Smith.
But if there are concerns, it would have to be the decline in situational football: third downs and scoring in the red zone. The offense performed better under Smith in these situations, especially when it came to finishing drives in the red zone with touchdowns.
For the entire season, San Francisco ranked 25th in third-down conversion rate (35.1 percent) and ranked 21st in red zone touchdown percentage (50.9 percent). While below average, it is an improvement over 2011 when the 49ers were 31st on third down (29.4 percent) and 30th in red zone touchdown percentage (40.7 percent).
For a team in the Super Bowl, you would like to see stronger situational offense, but to their credit, the postseason has been very efficient. The 49ers are 10-of-19 (52.6 percent) on third down and 7-of-9 in the red zone (77.8 percent) this postseason.
If the 49ers continue their recent level of play, things should be fine in the Super Bowl.
Breaking down Kaepernick’s rushing
With his deer-like gallop and speed, Kaepernick has been one of the most impressive runners at quarterback the league has ever seen. Though Smith was fairly mobile, he just does not have the athletic talent Kaepernick possesses, and it has been an advantage for the offense.
The zone-read option is all the rage in the NFL right now with fellow youngsters Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson also using it, but when watching all of Kaepernick’s runs in 2012, he is not inflating stats with a gimmick by any means. The 49ers use the zone-read option, but rarely will you see Kaepernick keep the ball on such plays.
Here is the breakdown of all 81 runs Kaepernick has had in 2012 (playoffs included).
First, when excluding nine kneel downs his rushing average is 8.74, which is mind-blowing stuff. It is almost as good on designed plays (9.31) as it is on scrambles (9.77), which is a testament to how fast of a runner he is.
Kaepernick has kept the ball on the zone-read option 20 times this season, and that includes five of his seven touchdowns. Of his three runs for at least 50 yards this season, two were off the zone-read option.
Kaepernick’s breakout game with the zone-read option saw him keep it seven times against Green Bay in the playoffs when he broke a record with 181 rushing yards on the night (99 yards off the zone-read option alone).
That performance in prime time likely made a lot of people believe he does this often, but numbers say otherwise. The Atlanta Falcons may have overcommitted to Kaepernick on the read-option in the NFC Championship, and he never kept it once in that game.
Six times this season Kaepernick has fumbled the snap, including four times in imperfect conditions against the Patriots in Week 15. The most infamous of his fumbled snaps came in St. Louis when on a read-option play, Kaepernick pitched the ball back to Ted Ginn Jr., but the bad pitch turned into a fumble and touchdown for the Rams late in the fourth quarter.
For those who do not know, when a quarterback is charged with a fumbled snap, it gets credited as a run for no gain regardless of where the ball is recovered. Gore recovered one of these fumbles for a touchdown against the Patriots, but that loose-ball yardage does not get credited to either player’s rushing total.
If you removed the six botched snaps, Kaepernick’s rushing average would increase to 9.53 yards per carry. The fact that he is a threat to take off on any given play and that Gore is so good behind a talented offensive line makes this offense very difficult to plan for.
Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree: A tale of two seasons
The change at quarterback has led to a change in how the receivers are being used. Vernon Davis has been a favorite target of Smith’s, while Michael Crabtree has been solid, but never really lived up to his draft potential out of Texas Tech.
But since the switch to Kaepernick, Crabtree has been making many big plays. He has four games with over 100 receiving yards with Kaepernick at quarterback, after having a total of four such games in the first 52 games of his career.
The math here is interesting, as both Crabtree and Davis accounted for 43.1 percent of each quarterback’s targets (94 out of 218) in the regular season. The difference is Kaepernick has thrown 5.0 percent more of his passes to Crabtree.
Fumble at the goal line aside, Crabtree has continued to be a threat for the 49ers in the playoffs, with 15 catches for 176 yards and two scores the last two weeks.
However, Harbaugh is very much a coach who will go with the right match up, and Davis exploded for five catches for 106 yards and a touchdown in the NFC Championship in Atlanta. In the previous seven games combined, Davis only had seven catches for 105 yards.
Though Davis is still the best receiving tight end on the team, the 49ers have actually gone to the less sure-handed Delanie Walker more often with Kaepernick. Walker had seven catches on 16 targets with Smith, but has caught 14 of Kaepernick’s 23 passes, including seven plays gaining at least 20 yards.
With Mario Manningham lost to injured reserve, Kaepernick’s favorite target has been Crabtree by a wide margin, followed closely by Randy Moss, Walker and Davis. With two weeks of hype and Crabtree’s recent off-field issues, we will have to see how he performs on the big stage when he will likely be a big part of San Francisco’s game plan.
Will David Akers be the next Scott Norwood?
In a Super Bowl expected to be played tightly without a lot of scoring opportunities, the field goal kickers are likely going to have to show up in the Superdome.
This could be a problem as the 49ers continue on with David Akers as their kicker. Akers was record-breaking last season with 44 field goals on 52 attempts. He started this season with a record-tying 63-yard field goal in Green Bay, but it has been downhill from there.
Akers made only 29 of his 42 attempts (69.0 percent) in the regular season, and badly doinked one off the left upright from 38 yards out in the NFC Championship. This is not the kind of kicker you want to trot out there to potentially win or lose a championship.
As we have pinpointed red zone struggles for the San Francisco offense, it is likely they will be relying on Akers for some crucial points in the Super Bowl.
Though having a reputation as a good kicker, Akers is not really the definition of a clutch kicker. He may not have the classic playoff choke on his resume like a Scott Norwood or Mike Vanderjagt, but that may be due to lack of opportunity as much as anything. Akers did miss two makeable kicks for the Eagles in a 2010 NFC Wild Card game against Green Bay; a game the Eagles lost 21-16.
Here is a list of all of Akers’ field goal attempts in clutch situations (tied or down by 1-3 points in the fourth quarter or overtime). Playoffs included, and noted by a blue date. Misses noted in red.
Overall, Akers is 26 of 33 (78.8 percent) with 15 game-winning (GW) field goals, but the average distance of his game-winners is only 33.8 yards. The average of the 26 made field goals is 35.2 yards. The average miss is from 51.1 yards away. The average length of all 33 kicks is 38.5 yards.
But the part that may be most troubling is what’s happening this year, and that means two game-winning misses against the Rams, and those were favorable kicking conditions.
Only twice in NFL history has a kicker missed a do-or-die field goal in a championship game, and we could have a situation where Akers puts his name next to Scott Norwood (Super Bowl XXV) and Billy Cundiff (2011 AFC Championship).
To think Cundiff was recently waived from the 49ers’ roster, and was a reason Baltimore was not in the Super Bowl last year.
For all the hard work players put in to reach this point of the season, sometimes it comes down to one swing of the leg from the kicker. For San Francisco’s sake, Harbaugh better hope this weakness does not become his team’s undoing.
Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.