Playing quarterback in the NFL should be classified as one of the most challenging jobs in the world. Few players over the course of history have mastered the art of picking apart a defense and leading their respective team to the Super Bowl.
For some signal-callers, a Super Bowl appearance is often years in the making. It’s rare that a quarterback with fewer than 16 regular-season starts under his belt steps in and leads his team to the NFL’s biggest game.
Unless, of course, your name is Colin Kaepernick.
As soon as Kaepernick stepped in for the injured Alex Smith last year, he took the league by storm. Over seven regular-season starts in 2012, he threw for 1,608 yards, 10 touchdowns and three interceptions.
Moreover, his passer rating was an outstanding 104.7 and his Pro Football Focus (subscription required) grade was +13.5.
His top-notch play didn’t end when the regular season ended either, continuing until time ran out on the San Francisco 49ers' season in Super Bowl XLVII against the Baltimore Ravens. Through three playoff games, Kaepernick not only beat the opposition with his arm, he torched defenses on the ground.
Despite coming up short in an attempt to hoist the Lombardi Trophy, fans and media members alike were sold on Kaepernick’s ability.
Some felt he had all the necessary tools to become one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play game. Sure, he had 10 measly starts to his name, but that didn’t matter because of his dominant nature.
However, things have a tendency to change rather quickly—thanks in large part to injuries and offseason adjustments.
It’s no secret that Kaep hasn’t lived up to the lofty expectations that were placed upon him following his showings in 2012. This year has been a rude awakening for the pundits who lauded him after a half-season’s worth of play.
Losing wide receiver Michael Crabtree during the offseason to an Achilles injury has proven to be the biggest blow.
When Kaepernick was inserted into the lineup versus the St. Louis Rams last season, he established an immediate connection with Crabtree. Of Kaepernick’s 218 pass attempts in 2012, Crabtree was the intended target 31 percent of the time.
When one-third of your passes are thrown in the direction of a particular receiver, it’s hard to replace that kind of trust and production at a moment’s notice.
Furthermore, it has been hard for Kaepernick to thrive with newcomers at the wide receiver position and average offensive line play. Cian Fahey of Bleacher Report wrote extensively about this very same subject at the end of August.
So I took it upon myself to ask him what things have accounted for Kaep’s slow start in 2013.
"Not much has changed with him. An overlooked aspect of Kaep last season was the offense around him and the game plan he executes," Fahey said.
"The offensive line isn’t playing as well this season, and the loss of Crabtree is huge. He is a one-read-and-throw quarterback. Now that his wide receivers aren't able to win on routes and there is more pressure, that is failing him."
Fahey makes a great point: Kaepernick is a one-read quarterback and the lone receiver who is consistently winning one-on-one matchups is Anquan Boldin. Outside of Boldin, tight end Vernon Davis is the only pass-catching option that has been serviceable on a regular basis.
Receivers Kyle Williams, Jon Baldwin, Marlon Moore and Quinton Patton have been nonexistent more often than not. The four wideouts mentioned above have garnered 13 receptions for 112 yards and no touchdowns.
It’s hard to steadily win games in the NFL when a team relies on two players (Boldin and Davis) to score touchdowns through the air.
49ers expert Vincent Frank of eDraft agrees with Fahey’s outlook, but takes things a step further in his evaluation of Kaepernick. "Kaep’s lack of receiving targets and questionable pocket awareness have hurt him this season. Also, the 49ers have taken him out of his natural zone by not letting him run," he said.
For whatever reason, it's true that the 49ers have called fewer designed run plays in 2013.
After the first five starts of his career in 2012, Kaepernick tallied 33 rushes for 202 yards. This season? Kaep has amassed 27 carries for 154 yards. This means he has not only carried the ball less, but his yards-per-carry average is down as well.
In today’s NFL, it’s easy to place the blame on Kaepernick’s shoulders for San Francisco’s ineffectiveness on offense. However, certain circumstances and variables often play into a quarterback’s ability to perform at a high level.
Instead of pointing fingers and jumping to conclusions, we should all take a step back and reserve judgment until the season plays itself out.