That's the question floating around the San Francisco 49ers in the wake of their franchise quarterback's horrendous performance against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 3. The fifth-year pro's stat line from last Sunday is ghastly: 9-of-19 for 67 yards with zero touchdowns and four interceptions, including a pair of pick-sixes, in San Francisco's 47-7 loss.
At a time when quarterbacks are seemingly evaluated on a week-to-week basis, the abysmal performance has put the spotlight squarely on Kaepernick heading into a Week 4 contest against the unbeaten Green Bay Packers.
After taking some time to dig into the All-22 Coaches Film to analyze the growth and development of the 27-year-old, I believe Kaepernick will not only bounce back with a strong performance, but he will silence the doubters questioning his potential as a franchise quarterback:
What's the book on Kaepernick?
Kaepernick is an electrifying dual-threat quarterback with exceptional athleticism and arm talent. He exhibits rare traits as a runner and passer on the perimeter, yet also displays the ability to deliver accurate throws from the pocket. Although his shaky footwork and mechanics affect his accuracy and ball placement at times, Kaepernick is an effective dropback passer capable of making throws to every area of the field. As a pocket passer, he is at his best working off play-action because the run fakes lure linebackers and safeties to the line, resulting in clean reads for the quarterback. Kaepernick quickly identifies the void in coverage and consistently delivers accurate throws to receivers working down the seams or to the corner. Thus, the 49ers' offense features a number of flood routes and seams off run-action from various pistol formations.
Kaepernick's biggest flaws show up on traditional dropback passes from spread formations. He doesn't throw with great timing or anticipation on pure progression reads (passing concepts that require the quarterback to read the field horizontally based on coverage) because it requires his feet and eyes to consistently work in unison. Thus, he must quickly process information during his drops to deliver the ball into an open window as the receiver is coming out of his break. While young quarterbacks typically struggle with this aspect of the NFL game, the learning curve is more difficult for passers coming from spread-option offenses (see: Alex Smith, Cam Newton, Ryan Tannehill and Robert Griffin III), where the bulk of the concepts are "pick-and-stick" routes (simple, quick-read passing plays that minimize the amount of thinking for the quarterback).
Kaepernick has made progress in this area during his career, but it remains the weakest part of his game and the team has significantly reduced the number of complex reads under new offensive coordinator Geep Chryst. While Kaepernick must continue to develop this skill to become a complete player, the 49ers are better off building around the strengths of his game (athleticism, running skills and arm talent/strength) to enhance their chances of fielding a winning offense now. Thus, it is sensible to put him in an offense that features several of the concepts and formations that helped him become an absurdly prolific playmaker at Nevada. (Kaepernick was the first Division I player to surpass 10,000 yards passing and 4,000 yards rushing during his collegiate career.)
Through the first two games of the season, the simplification of the 49ers' offense produced solid results. Kaepernick completed 69.4 percent of his passes, averaged 250.0 passing yards per game and posted a 98.1 passer rating with a 2:0 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Here are some of the concepts that helped Kaepernick get off to a fast start:
This play is depicted just below. Against the Vikings in Week 1, the 49ers aligned in a full-house backfield with Vernon Davis and Bruce Miller positioned as fullbacks. Kaepernick executes a play fake to hold the linebackers at the second level, with Davis running a post corner and Miller running a flat route. The concept allows Kaepernick to make a high-low read on Harrison Smith in the flat. When the Vikings safety flies up to cover the flat route, Kaepernick is able to target Davis on the corner route. The ball is delivered on time and on target, resulting in a 19-yard gain (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
On the next play depiction, right under this paragraph, the 49ers align in an offset I-formation with receiver Anquan Boldin positioned at fullback. The team is executing a snag route with play action in the backfield. Kaepernick fakes the ball to running back Carlos Hyde and looks to hit the flat route immediately. With the scissors action creating a pick near the line of scrimmage, Boldin hauls in the pass and finishes with a 9-yard gain. This results in a first down and places the 49ers in prime position to score (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
In the Week 2 game against the Steelers, the 49ers hit a home run on a seam route following a read-option play fake -- as you can see just below. The 49ers break the huddle in a pistol slot I-formation with Torrey Smith positioned in the slot. Kaepernick takes the snap and executes a quick fake to the running back before looking for his primary receiver. Smith explodes down the hash marks on a seam route. With the fake luring the Steelers' linebackers to the line of scrimmage, Kaepernick is able to hit Smith with a dart down the middle. Smith breaks free and scores a 75-yard touchdown (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
What happened last week against the Arizona Cardinals?
Credit Cardinals defensive coordinator James Bettcher from putting together a rock-solid game plan that forced Kaepernick to play outside of his comfort zone. Arizona played a lot of single-high safety coverage (Cover 1/Cover 3) designed to overload the box against the run while taking away some of the easy play-action passes that are staples of the 49ers' playbook. The utilization of Cover 1 (man-free), in particular, eliminates the "RPOs" (run-pass option plays) and reduces the effectiveness of play-action passes when defenders play with excellent discipline in coverage. With the defensive backs playing man-to-man on the outside, the run-action fakes fail to impact the coverage, forcing Kaepernick to make tight-window throws on the perimeter. When the quarterback fails to deliver the ball on time, the defensive backs are able to close and swipe errant passes.
In addition, the heavy utilization of man coverage -- particularly press-man -- takes away the layups in the passing game (bubble screens, quick hitches, quick outs and slants) and forces the quarterback to make "big boy" throws on the perimeter. Thus, Kaepernick must quickly decipher which receiver has the favorable matchup and deliver the ball on time to prevent defensive backs from undercutting the route down the field.
On the Justin Bethel's interception, which you can see just below, the 49ers are aligned in a dubs formation. The Cardinals initially are in a Cover 2 shell alignment, but moving into their Cover 1 (man-free) scheme prior to the snap. Safety Tony Jefferson will blitz from the slot and linebacker Kevin Minter will blitz through the middle to create a six-man pressure at the line of scrimmage. The overload blitz puts pressure right in Kaepernick's face. The QB is unable to step into his throw, resulting in a floater heading in Davis' direction. With Bethel locked on Davis in man coverage, the crafty corner is able to step in front and take the pick the distance for the Cardinals' first score (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
On the next series, Tyrann Mathieu registers a pick-six in another Cover 1 defense. As you can see below, the 49ers are aligned in a pistol slot I-formation. Kaepernick will execute a play fake to Hyde before taking a peek at Davis on a corner route. On the back side, Boldin is running a hitch from the slot to serve as Kaepernick's second option on the play. Kaepernick quickly determines that Davis is covered on the corner and whips his head around to find Boldin. However, he hesitates and double-pumps before delivering the pass, allowing Mathieu to get an early jump on the throw. The Honey Badger snags the late throw and registers another defensive score for the Cardinals(TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Having thrown back-to-back pick-sixes, doubt creeps into Kaepernick's head, leading to more hesitant throws throughout the game.
How can Kaepernick get back on track against the Green Bay Packers?
As crazy as it sounds to suggest a visit from an unbeaten team is the perfect remedy for Kaepernick's ailments, the fifth-year pro has thrived against the Packers during his career. He not only sports a 3-0 mark vs. Dom Capers' bunch, but he has averaged 100.3 rushing yards per game against Green Bay.
While his electric running skills definitely present a problem to Green Bay's defense, the fact that he has registered a 400-yard passing game (Week 1 of the 2013 season) is just as troublesome for the Packers. Kaepernick has delivered explosive plays in the passing game on an assortment of read-option plays, bootlegs and traditional dropback passes. Thus, the 49ers should feel good about Kaepernick's chances of bouncing back in Week 4.
1) Establish the running game with Carlos Hyde. It is not a coincidence that the 49ers' most effective offensive outing (Week 1 vs. Minnesota) featured Hyde's breakout performance as a feature back. Against the Vikings, Hyde rushed for 168 yards on 26 carries and scored a pair of touchdowns. Most importantly, he tallied six runs of 10-plus yards and made an immediate impact as a workhorse runner. Thus, the Vikings were forced to use eight-man fronts and play one-on-one coverage on the outside. This not only cleans up the picture for Kaepernick in the passing game, but it allowed the 49ers to control the tempo of the game and eventually dictate the terms to the defense. Given the importance of staying ahead of the chains to limit long-yardage situations, the 49ers need their young runner to crack the 100-yard mark against the Packers to optimize their chances of winning a pivotal game.
2) Focus on winning first down. The 49ers can help Kaepernick succeed as a passer by minimizing the pass-only situations that he faces on third down. To accomplish that feat, San Francisco must win on first down (gain four yards or more) to keep the offense in manageable situations. While most focus on the success of the running game on early downs, the 49ers can establish a rhythm by throwing play-action passes or leaning on the quick game (hitches, quick outs and slants) to take advantage of the "off" coverage that typically accompanies eight-man fronts. If Kaepernick can knock down a few layups on early downs or Hyde can crack a few positive runs, the 49ers will be in a position to diversify their play calls on third down, resulting in a higher success rate in key situations.
3) Unleash Colin Kaepernick as a running threat. For all of the concerns about Kaepernick's passing skills, there is no disputing his ability to impact the game as a runner. He carves up defenses on improvisational scrambles or designed quarterback runs on the perimeter. This nullifies the effectiveness of man coverage and puts opponents in a bind when determining whether to blitz or cover on critical downs. Although the skeptics have harped on Kaepernick's erratic play in the pocket, he is most effective when utilizing all of his assets as a playmaker. Thus, he should flee the pocket when he spots an opening to force the Packers to defend the entire field. This could reduce the amount of blitzes he faces and create big-play opportunities against a passive defense. Additionally, the designated runs might help Kaepernick rediscover his mojo and lead him to play with more confidence on the perimeter.
Check out the play below, taken from last week's game. The 49ers are aligned in an I strong formation with Kaepernick executing the read-option to the left. Kaepernick takes the snap and places the ball in the belly of the running back while reading the reaction of defensive end Alex Okafor. When Okafor folds inside, Kaepernick takes the ball around the edge with Davis leading the way. With the Cardinals locked into man coverage, Kaepernick turns the corner and races untouched into the end zone for a 12-yard touchdown (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Is Kaepernick a franchise quarterback?
Yes. Although the fourth-year starter remains a work in progress as a pocket passer, he is a talented playmaker with the tools to thrive as a long-term signal caller for the 49ers. The team is built around his strengths as a player and the multiplicity of the 49ers' offensive personnel can be problematic when Kaepernick is playing at his best. With Chryst willing to incorporate run-heavy and jumbo packages with multiple tight ends on the field, Kaepernick's skills as a dynamic runner/passer adds a dimension to the offense that's very rare. If the 49ers continue to allow Kaepernick to work through the growing pains of playing quarterback at a high level, he will reward the team with quality play.
Kaepernick has already led his team to a Super Bowl and two NFC Championship Game appearances, which is more than the traditional quarterbacks in his draft class and subsequent classes have accomplished during that span. While the critics have encouraged the 49ers to move on from their young passer, there just aren't many quarterbacks with his combination of athleticism and arm talent.