The Film Room: Colin Kaepernick - Game Manager?

Kaepernick. So hot right now. Kaepernick. - USA TODAY Sports

Brett Kollmann of Battle Red Blog dives into the tape to see how one of the league's brightest young stars is faring in the lead-up to this Sunday night's matchup between the Houston Texans and San Francisco 49ers.

This time last week, I was posting the blueprint for attacking the Seattle Seahawks defense. I talked about bunch sets, seam routes, and a neverending stream of passes to tight ends. I predicted Whitney Mercilus would get two and a half sacks, and I foretold that D.J. Swearinger would lock down trusted tight end Zach Miller on third down situations. So how did I do? Houston put up nearly 500 yards of offense.  The tight ends combined for 140 yards receiving.  Whitney Mercilus accrued exactly two and a half sacks.  Zach Miller got a whopping one catch for seven yards. I bring all of this up not to toot my own horn, but to lend at least a shred of contextual credibility to what I am about to say before going in front of a firing squad of San Francisco 49ers fans.

Something is seriously wrong with Colin Kaepernick. I mean seriously, seriously wrong. He is not playing like a rookie – he’s playing worse.

Do not let the stats fool you. Week One produced a great statistical outing at nearly a 70% completion rate, 412 yards, and three touchdowns with no interceptions, yet even that game was horrible from a tape perspective. Green Bay loaded the box to stop the run, which worked, played off-man coverage (with no Morgan Burnett and no Casey Hayward, mind you) across the board, and Kaepernick just took quick out after quick out for free yardage. When Green Bay went into their soft zone looks in long yardage situations, which happened quite often considering how ineffective the run game was, Anquan Boldin was able to shred them simply by running posts and corners over, and over, and over again against a Packers' safety tandem that has no concept of protecting the middle of the field.

The few times when Dom Capers actually made a good play call and put all his defensive backs on the line, Kaepernick was helpless. He would rush progressions and lock in on his first read.  His ball placement was spotty, His footwork was sloppy.  He would scramble at the first sign of trouble despite a receiver being wide open down field. When Colin Kaepernick was asked to do anything besides "the gimme throws", it got just plain ugly.

Week Two saw a real defense that would not give Kaepernick any "gimmes" in the Seattle Seahawks. Man coverage on his security blanket, Anquan Boldin, was tight as could be and Kaepernick was again a deer in the headlights. If either Boldin or Vernon Davis were immediately covered off the snap, nobody else existed in Colin Kaepernick’s world. Kyle Williams should have had a gigantic night, but Kaepernick’s poor vision and panicked decision-making would only produce three points in the entire game. His stat line – 46% completion, 127 yards, zero touchdowns, three interceptions.

Week Three saw more of the same--tight man coverage across the board and eight packed in the box to stop Frank Gore. The difference – Frank Gore was not getting stopped. I still do not know why Greg Roman refused to continue feeding the only offensive weapon on the roster getting anything done against a porous Colts' front seven, but the decision to hand the ball to Colin Kaepernick would end up losing the game. More rushed reads, more bad throws, more panic, and a 48% - 150 yard – zero touchdown – one interception performance.

Last week’s Thursday night divisional showdown in St. Louis was the first time I saw an offense that actually clicked from the ground game on up.  Even then, Kaepernick’s tape was extremely concerning. Had the run game not put up over two hundred yards of production against an overmatched Rams front seven, who knows what would have happened. The ball was taken out of Colin Kaepernick’s hands.  He finished with a stat line of 65% completions on 23 throws - 167 yards – two touchdowns, and zero interceptions. As a result of not being asked to do too much, Kaepernick was able to competently perform a role that Alex Smith was so routinely vilified for filling – game manager.

Yeah, I said it. Colin Kaepernick is a game manager, albeit one that runs like a gazelle and has a rocket arm.

So what exactly is wrong with this really, really, ridiculously good looking model/actor/quarterback? Well, for starters he can’t turn left and throw the football. Ask Kaepernick to roll to his right and deliver a strike to the sideline across his body, and he can do it.

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That Colin Kaepernick is so hot right now.

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Ask the same thing, but to the left? Nothing happens. I have no idea why, but Colin Kaepernick is literally incapable of looking down field or throwing the ball accurately when running that direction. Maybe he is not comfortable opening his shoulders, maybe he is blind in his right eye, maybe he is not an ambi-turner. I really do not know what the problem is, but Kaepernick would sooner be caught running out of bounds two yards short on third down than delivering a strike to a wide open receiver on the move.

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Beyond Kaepernick’s unusual ability to only throw across his body while running, which is the exact opposite of most quarterbacks, he has a horrible habit of seeing ghosts in the pocket and inexplicably scrambling or taking his eyes off his receivers at the first whiff of pressure, even if that pressure is imaginary. It’s like he’s taking crazy pills.

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This case of Michael Vick syndrome has also negatively impacted his ability to hit wide open receivers in favor of running the ball short of first downs and exposing himself to injury.

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Here is one of the better examples of Kaepernick’s happy feet. The Colts are in a single high shell.  Rather than freezing the linebackers with his eyes by looking at the whip route to his left and then delivering a strike over the middle to hit Garrett Celek under the free safety, Kaepernick panics when he sees that his first read, Vance McDonald in the right flat, is covered.  He immediately looks to run. There was no pressure on the edge, and there was nobody in his face. Kaepernick has zero reason to run here and could have gotten a big play over the middle, but his scramble-first mentality once again takes over and screws the Niners out of yardage that they sorely needed to climb back into this game.

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Speaking of locking in on his first read, Kaepernick has a terrible tendency to only look in one direction if he likes his pre-snap read, regardless of how covered his target happens to be or how uncovered other receivers are in other parts of the field.

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That  tendency to stare down receivers also practically invites defenders to jump every route that the Niners receivers are running. If James Laurinaitis had a pair of hands that were not made of stone, he would have easily had two interceptions against Kaepernick just by reading his eyes.

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If there is one play that personifies Colin Kaepernick’s 2013 season so far, it is this second and long against the Packers in Week One. The Packers are in a Cover One Man Under look that would eventually roll post snap to a Cover Two. Kyle Williams is running a curl on the front side.  Boldin in the slot is running a corner/post to get position over the middle against Jerron McMillian. Vance McDonald is running a square in as a last resort outlet while Vernon Davis runs an out and up with a comeback, presumably as the back side read to move the chains if Anquan Boldin is not open.

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Kaepernick takes the snap and looks for Boldin before Boldin even hits his break, which could easily lead to an interception or an unnecessary big hit on Boldin over the middle. Boldin gets McMillian to flip his hips on the jab to the corner and has set him up to get burned on the post.

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I am not sure why, but Kaepernick abandons the Boldin read after staring it down and seeing it develop in favor of checking on Vernon Davis, who has a safety over the top and a hanging corner waiting to jump the route for an interception. Boldin has beaten his man and is open over the middle.

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Kaepernick sticks with the Davis read despite being in a staring contest with the cornerback. Anquan Boldin is still open.

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Kaepernick sees that the Davis throw won’t happen.  Instead of checking back to Boldin, he elects to start running despite there being absolutely zero pressure in the pocket.

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Ah, the good old "Run five yards backwards on second down". Good plan, Colin.

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But wait, he escapes!

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Only to run out of bounds for a loss instead of throwing the ball away, setting up an even harder third down that would fail to be converted.

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If Colin Kaepernick is given time in the pocket, has good footwork, does not run from imaginary pressure, does not lock in to his first read, and actually goes through his progressions, he can drop some of the prettiest dimes you’ll see all season.

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Unfortunately for Niners fans everywhere, these kinds of pinpoint accurate bombs are the exception rather than the rule at this point. It is easy to forget that a Super Bowl quarterback has barely a season’s worth of starts in his career, but at the same time I am compelled to think that a third year quarterback who has taken his team to the biggest stage of them all, fourteen starts or not, should be a little bit further along in his development than this. Kaepernick has had three training camps with Jim Harbaugh to work out these issues, yet they still persist.

The "game manager" connotation has come about in recent years to describe quarterbacks who might not cost their teams football games, but who probably cannot be relied on to cause many wins through the air either. 2013’s defensive schemes have reacted to the 2012 read option crazes with a vengeance.  With the limiting of the option, so comes the filtering of mobile quarterbacks between one-trick ponies versus true franchise signal-callers. If Colin Kaepernick can no longer be relied upon to carry his team on the strength of his quarterbacking skill rather than the speed of his legs, what else could he be classified as other than a game manager?

Is Colin Kaepernick a more athletic Matt Schaub, Alex Smith, or Joe Flacco? Will he become the game-breaking gunslinger than I think he can be? That much I do not know. The physical tools are there, and once Michael Crabtree returns from his Achilles injury, Kaepernick will have yet another weapon that can actually get open against man coverage. Right now though, in this Week Five contest against one of the best defenses in the league, with a blitz package of J.J. Watt, Brian Cushing, and Brooks Reed that often comes from the right side of the line to flush the quarterback left, would you bet on Colin Kaepernick willing this team to a victory with his arm? I know I wouldn’t.

Oh well, at least he helped invent the Pistol Offense and went to the Super Bowl. WHAT HAVE YOU DONE, RUSSELL WILSON?! YOU’VE GOT NOTHING! NOTHING! NOTHING!

Predictions (Texans-49ers)

I went three for three last week (if you count overall tight end production and not just Owen Daniels’ stat line, which I do). Let’s see if I can work the magic yet again.

1 - Frank Gore tops 100 yards. The Niners' run blocking scheme matches up very well with the Texans' front seven. Traps and wham blocks are a Jim Harbaugh staple when facing aggressive defensive lines, and I have a sneaking suspicion that Gore breaks off a few big ones from Vance McDonald and Bruce Miller trapping/whamming Antonio Smith, Earl Mitchell, and J.J. Watt.

2 - DeAndre Hopkins has himself a day. Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman being back on the field spells trouble for Arian Foster and Ben Tate. I think, if anything, Matt Schaub will have to beat this team through the air. The Niners' secondary, particularly the starting corners, have been vulnerable the last couple years. Eric Reid will likely see a lot of Andre Johnson on the back side as the X receiver, and Donte Whitner (Hitner?) will probably be busy contending with Owen Daniels and Garrett Graham over the middle of the field for a good portion of the day. That leaves DeAndre Hopkins one-on-one against Carlos Rogers, who is a far cry from his 2011 Pro Bowl form. I think Hopkins posts at least seven catches for 90 yards and a touchdown.

3 - Ahmad Brooks gets two sacks, both against Derek Newton, because…you know…it’s Derek Newton.

Texans vs 49ers coverageNiners Nation

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