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Of all the possible solutions to recent 49er woes, fans clamor for this one the most. Our offense struggles, while the most dynamic player on the squad seems pocket-bound. We remember the bullet speed, the defenders leapt at a single bound, the superstar in the making. We remember big chunks of yardage. We remember defensive coordinators quaking. Where have those plays gone?
Some, former 49er quarterback Steve Young among them, think that Kaep should spend more, not less, time in the pocket. They lament the fact that Colin has not yet mastered the art of pocket passing, and insist that he should study the intricacies of the position instead of dashing headlong into defenses. Mr. Young even recalls the bygone days of Bill Walsh and Sid Gilman. This line of thought makes sense, but leaves out a few things. First, the 49ers' staff has already spent countless hours coaching the lad up. Second, Bill Walsh and Sid Gilman are no longer around to draw up plays, and if they were, might very well concoct some fresh running plays for Kaep, since the old ones have gone somewhat stale. Third, comparing contemporary pro-offense gurus to Gilman and Walsh is like comparing contemporary political leaders to George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. While reminders of excellence help to elevate aspirations, the overall comparison is a bit too one-sided to yield much insight. As for Young's assertion that Sid Gilman once tied Steve's legs together so he could not run from the pocket, I doubt the bondage took place during actual games.
Yes, Colin Kaepernick does need to read defenses better. And, yes, he does need to continue improving as a pocket passer. But that pocket-sized Colin Kaepernick may never exist. Right now, and for these next four games, much of his value, like it or not, still inheres in his ability to run. Gilman may have physically hobbled his quarterbacks; the 49ers, meanwhile, may have psychologically shackled their one-time star. Understandably, especially considering his backups, the Niners do not want Kaep to incur an injury while cavorting through linebackers. But, given the decline in his offensive line, shy of pass-blocking abilities even in their prime, might not the young QB risk injury anyway when forced into scrambles?
Jim Harbaugh abhors risk, and his conservative approach wins a lot of games. But that overly cautious approach may have backfired with regard to his young signal-caller, and I don't just mean the X's and O's. Early in the season at his post-game press conferences, Colin seemed overly sensitive to his perceived shortcomings, occasionally even blurting out the pre-snap coverages he had recognized during the game, as though he had to prove his competence. The 49ers quickly channeled his responses back to Harbaughesque vagueness, but now Colin has begun to lightly season that blandness with dribs of diffidence and drabs of frustration. After all, from his point of view, he should concentrate on leading his team, not answering endless scapegoating questions or fending off the ire from fans.
Last week on the NFL Network, Brian Billick, an analyst with former 49er ties, said he was "worried about Colin Kaepernick." Mr. Billick did not elaborate, but 49er fans have already done so. We have seen our young would-be prince begin to battle his own demons as well as the opponent. We have watched our once-and-future king throw yet more hapless passes in the direction of Richard Sherman. And we have witnessed the ebb in his confidence, the downcast demeanor, the throttled voice, the waning of his enthusiasm. We would perhaps do well to remember, amid our teeth gnashing and our frenzy to blame, that no one feels the disappointment in his performance more keenly than does Colin himself. Yes, he gets paid the big bucks, and, yes, quarterbacks do take more blame than they deserve. But this young man has dedicated his life to his profession. He does his best.
And Colin Kaepernick's best includes running the ball. Face it. He will probably never read defenses as well as Payton Manning. Few do. And he may never be as accurate as state-of-the-art Tom Brady. Few are. He may never measure up to our ideal. But he is the quarterback we have, and that quarterback excels at hell-bent runs. Not at scrambling to find an open receiver, not even so much at reading read-option options, but at pitting his speed against the defenses on plays when he bursts past the line of scrimmage with enough steam to outflank the designated QB spies and pick up chunk yardage. Defenses fear Kaepernick most on broken plays. To confine him too strictly to the pocket takes away the one thing he does best, the one thing Manning and Brady cannot do: shred defenses with his fleet feet.
Maybe, at this, he will fail. Maybe defenses will shadow him with not one, but two, spies. Maybe defensive fronts will consistently maintain containment discipline. But at least he will fail doing what he does best. Even the mere attempts may bolster his confidence and help to rekindle the feeling that he can contribute meaningfully to the team on those dread days when his accuracy falters and defensive disguises confound his reads. At least he would look more like a football player and less like a baffled calf.
Of course, the 49er coaches know this, and last year, during the playoffs, they did unshackle Kaep the caperer. This season, considering the 49ers' current record, the must-win games may have already arrived. Yes, Kaepernick must continue his grind to become a better pocket passer. But the entire offseason lies ahead for that, and future regular seasons as well. And, yes, injury risk always abides, although the Niners appear to have schooled Kaepernick well in "slide before they hit you" theory. But Kaepernick may be in his prime now, not later. Perhaps he has already peaked. And maybe we should all put aside our pipe-dreams of a perfect quarterback for a while and accept the fact that the actual quarterback we now have does possess demonstrable flaws. Alas, just like the rest of us, he's human. But he also possesses demonstrable strengths, among them his extraordinary foot speed.
No, Kaepernick runs alone cannot reboot entirely a stumblebum offense. But a couple of chunk-yardage plays per game may goose it back into relevance. And, while they're at it, the 49ers might consider letting Kaepernick do the other thing at which he has excelled: the medium-deep passes where he can utilize his laser arm. Yes, this may risk interceptions, but the Niners need some strike plays. The dink-and-dunk passing attack, when combined with the diminished running game, actually increases the chances for mistakes, because the resultant long drives require more plays. And, in part because of poor special-teams play, the Niners this year have faced more long drives than they should, despite their strong defense.
Admittedly, it goes against Coach Harbaugh's maize-and-blue grain to take chances. But, sometimes, refusing to take chances has its costs, in this case the risk that such rigid control may permanently damage a young QB's mind-set and undermine his game. And football, as well as being a multi-billion dollar business, is still also a game, and can be played as such. Restore the young man's joy. Revive his verve. Set the lad free. It's not as if the converse has worked out so well. If the 49ers do go down, at least they will have gone down Kaepernicking.