Aside from Aaron Hernandez, the most talked about player of the offseason has been Colin Kaepernick, hailed as the savior to the San Francisco 49ers, and labeled the grand-master of the organization’s future. Some of the focus has been out of the young player’s hands, like getting ridiculous backlash for sporting a Miami Dolphins snapback. Some attention has been purely appearance-based, with the “tattooed role model” controversy and then appearing in ESPN’s “Bodies” issue. However, the most undeserved attention has to be about his actual performance on the field last season, and his projected impact into the future. Kaepernick was nominated from an ESPN for “Best Breakthrough Athlete” and was recently listed above Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III on Ron Jaworski’s “QB Countdown,” ranking No. 11 in the NFL. But why?
In defense of Kaepernick, he did put up some impressive numbers in his relatively short stint as the quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers. In a mere 536 offensive snaps, he threw for 1,814 yards, 10 touchdowns, and only 3 interceptions. On top of that, he rushed for 415 yards and 5 touchdowns, totaling over 2,000 all-purpose yards and 15 touchdowns in essentially 7.5 games. Even more impressive were his numbers in the playoffs, with 798 yards and 4 touchdowns in a three-game span, leading to an NFC Championship and a spot in the Super Bowl.
However, the assertion that Colin Kaepernick was the “saving grace” of the organization is a bit over-hyped, to say the least. There just so happened to be another quarterback, previously on the roster, that put up better number and more wins in fewer snaps than Kaepernick, against higher quality opponents. In only 501 snaps, Alex Smith tallied 1,737 yards and 13 touchdowns. He was also, at the time, leading the NFL in QB Rating, and finished the season with the highest completion percentage in the NFL (70.2%). More impressively, Smith had led the 49ers to a 6-2 record, with quality wins over the Green Bay Packers and the Seattle Seahawks; and, prior to his injury against the St. Louis Rams in Week 10, had completed 7 of 8 passes for 72 yards with a touchdown.
The typical argument for Kaepernick over Smith is that the young, more athletic Colin Kaepernick added a new dynamic to the offense that was previously not present on the team, that his ability to “keep the play alive” is what elevated the team to a new level. But, is that really true?
Kaepernick finished the regular season with a 5-2 record, not counting the tie with the St. Louis Rams in Week 10, when he posted a 84.7 QB Rating, did not throw for a touchdown, and was sacked 3 times while playing 64.2% of the snaps at quarterback. In that time, Kaepernick won against the Jay Cutler-less Chicago Bears, the New Orleans Saints’ 31st-ranked defense, the Arizona Cardinals, and the sub-.500 Miami Dolphins. He did manage a solid win over the New England Patriots, but did so in the wake of the Rob Gronkowski injury. Kaepernick was also primarily responsible for the loss against the St. Louis Rams, essentially handing the Rams eight points with an unnecessary safety and an overthrown toss that resulted in a defensive touchdown. He was also no match for the Seattle Seahawks, who routed the 49ers in a 42-13 beatdown where the young quarterback posted a 27.8 QBR while also leading the team in rushing attempts.
The other argument for Kaep-supporters is his performance in the 2012 playoffs, which ended in the 49ers first Super Bowl appearance since 1995. He single-handedly beat the Packers in the opening round, combining for four total touchdowns in the 45-31 victory. The second-year player also led the comeback against the Atlanta Falcons, finishing the game with a 127.7 QB Rating. Kaepernick even nearly “sealed” the comeback in the Super Bowl against the Baltimore Ravens, posting 24 points in the second half of the game…
However, most forget that the 49ers’ defense stone-walled the Falcons in the second half of that game, not allowing a single point once the team returned after halftime. In fact, one of the primary reason for the necessity of a “comeback” was the fact that Kaepernick only completed 1 out of 4 passes on the opening two drives of the game, resulting in a grand total of -8 yards passing; due to only 1 yard passing and -9 yards on a sack. Even in the second half, the offense only managed two drives longer than 40 yards, despite starting three drives outside of the San Francisco 35 yard-line. People also fail to mention that the reason the 49ers were forced to “come back” in the Super Bowl was largely due to the offensive failure of Colin Kaepernick and the San Francisco 49ers in the opening half of the game. In their six first-half drives, Kaepernick led to team to only six points, with three drives of fewer than 10 total yards, including two punts, an interception, and a lost fumble on offense.
Some suggest the the 49ers wouldn’t have even been in the Super Bowl without Colin Kaepernick manning the helm. However, Alex Smith was equally impressive in the 2011 San Francisco playoff run that ended in the NFC Championship game. In two games, Alex Smith posted 495 yards and 5 passing touchdowns, without a single interception. In fact, the 49ers were likely a muffed punt away from beating the New York Giants, which would have sent them to the Super Bowl. Without Kaepernick playing a single snap, Smith went 19-5 over two seasons, including a trip to the NFC Championship in the first year under new head coach Jim Harbaugh.
So, a change at quarterback leads to essentially no change in the result on the field… what does that mean? Could it be that the success is less about quarterback play and more about the rest of the roster? Here is a look at each of the top players at each position on the 2012 San Francisco 49ers depth chart…
|Ranking (within position)
With a Top 10 player at, literally, every position on offense, it is not hard to imagine why a quarterback would be successful… and that doesn’t even take into account the defense and the luxury of playing in a “consecutive year” under a head coach.
Colin Kaepernick played well for the 49ers last season, and was obviously solid enough to guide the team to a NFC West crown and a birth in the Super Bowl. However, the 49ers’ roster was, and is, more than capable of carrying any competent quarterback. In my humble opinion, Kaepernick will be an upgrade over Alex Smith, and was clearly the “right choice” last season. However, he stepped into the lineup of a squad who had 1) pumped out 19 wins in one and a half seasons 2) has three first-rounders on the offensive line, two first-rounders at the skill positions, and a Top 10 running back and 3) made it within a muffed punt of the Super Bowl in 2011.
The book on Kaepernick is just beginning to be written, having played only 10 complete games as a starter in the NFL. However, he is just that… a quarterback who has played only 10 games! The 2013 season will be a time to showcase the young quarterbacks’ talents, especially within an NFC West that could potentially put three teams in the postseason. He will now be playing with a bulls-eye on his chest, after defensive coordinators have had an entire offseason to study his playing style, and will be taking the field without his favorite target, Michael Crabtree, who will miss a majority of the regular season with injury. Only time will tell if he can live up to the hype of this offseason…